You don't need a watch to tell you that your time's not your own In the age of hyperwork we should remember time as a friend

Related Topics
"HOW goes the Enemy?" our teacher used to ask. The clock was on the wall behind his desk. He was too badly-paid to have a wristwatch, too young for a brass one on a chain. Only the rumbling in his belly told him the lesson was nearly done, that biscuits were being set out and tea brewed in the staff room.

We would all shout back at him with the time. It was no Enemy to us, but a friend. The minute-hand would finally reach the hour; the bells would explode in one classroom after another; the uproar of slamming desks and thundering shoes would announce liberation.

Last week, a colleague came in ratty because she had mistaken the time. She never wears a wristwatch because she relies on public clocks. This is because she has an upright, socialist disposition which assumes that public provision will eventually replace bourgeois individualism. But all the public clocks in her bit of London have now broken down: some vandalised, some pulled down for traffic-calming measures, some simply neglected. So ... you might assume that my colleague is late for everything. But instead she is discovering that punctuality is somehow no longer the point. And she has not bought a wristwatch.

Time on clocks does not matter as it used to. Once time was both a god and a tyrant - in many ways, an Enemy indeed. Now a new period is opening, a clockless landscape whose dimensions are no longer marked in minutes or hours pegged out along every path and notched on every tree. I have a feeling that this may not be a change for the better.

The Modern Age built itself on the idea of clocked time. In Benedict Anderson's famous book Imagined Communities, he described how modern nationalism developed as people were trained to imagine a shared cultural identity with other, distant people whom they would never actually see. One instrument in this training was the circulation of printed literature in the vernacular language. Another, much later, was clocked time. If it was six o'clock in Kent, then it had to be six o'clock in Somerset and in Westmoreland.

This totally conflicted with the evidence of the senses. After all, everyone could watch the westward movement of dawn and dusk across the landscape. But national standard time was accepted: another imaginary shared experience. Soon, a French minister of education would exult in the knowledge that at precisely ten minutes past eleven on a Tuesday morning, every 12-year- old pupil in every lycee would be turning the same page in the same history book.

The Industrial Revolution, the life of factory and office, was ruled by measured time. One clocked on and clocked off. Hours were checked by overseers often equipped with portable timepieces in their waistcoat pocket. Lateness became a punishable, even a moral offence. With this cult of "drilled simultaneity" went a secondary cult of "acceleration". A unit of time came to be understood as a physical space, into which as much output as possible had to be packed. Speed of production per time- unit became crucial. A hundred widgets turned and finished in an hour was better than fifty; thirty letters typed in an hour was better than fifteen.

On the "Fordist" production line, time became the key determinant of cost. Soon the "time and motion" teams began to raid the workplace, roaming up and down between the rows of lathes or the production-belt, stabbing at the knob of their stop-watches. Economic statistics became anchored to time-units. Speed and regularity became the unquestioned marks of modernity. Mussolini made Italy's trains run on time; the Moscow Metro installed platform clocks proudly displaying the train intervals (they are still there); the car was judged by its mph and the secretary by her wpm.

But the clock was a weapon which could be turned against its owners. Once complex industrial processes had developed their routines, organised labour fought back by adopting and then subverting the time fetish. Trade union demands for "shorter hours" were often as important as - and more disruptive than - the demands for higher wages. The Marxist theory of labour value was to a great extent about time: the "socially necessary" time required to produce a commodity.

Now this era begins to seem archaic. The public clocks are broken. Offices these days often have no timepiece on the wall. Neither of the two journalists who share my desk possesses a watch yet they work in what is one of the most time-sensitive of all industries.

This slow but enormous change is well-described in a recent issue of Demos. Devoted to "the time-squeeze", it contains a series of intelligent attempts to assess the coming death of the clock. In its impact on society, this event may turn out to be as influential as the "death of God". And like the decline of organised religion, it brings both new liberty and new servitude.

There is the optimistic view: that "in place of the ordered shared rhythms of the industrial age, time ... becomes customised and personalised" (Demos). The home computer, the freezer, the video all empower the individual to decide his or her working hours. The important thing is to get the job done, but the only important time dimension may be the deadline for delivery - not any internal timetable for carrying it out.

That sounds good, but already faintly dated. It smells unmistakeably of the 1980s and the decade's feel-good illusions. "Liberation!" they said, and led us into a bigger cell with a view. The death of the clock is being followed by a strange new atmosphere in which we seem to be exploiting ourselves rather than relying on the clock-owning class to do the exploitation. As one informant told Demos, "We'll all be able to work ourselves to death - because ubiquitous computers mean our work will always be with us."

Since the late 1980s, I have been aware of living in a hyperwork culture. All around me, at work and in my acquaintance, are younger men and women who are working up to 10 hours a day and often more, while also accepting steadily growing burdens of freelance work. Nobody commands them directly to turn up at a specific hour or to work so long. Some have contracts with minimum or maximum hours, but neither employer nor employee seems to remember them. The concept of "overtime" is a half-remembered term from history, like villenage.

Many of these hyperworkers, as often women as men, have young children. It is hard to see where space for family life exists. I am, admittedly, writing mostly about media people or highly educated employees in knowledge- based firms. Yet the statistics show that general British working hours are lengthening (after diminishing for 150 years), that they are longer than in other European countries, and that 60 per cent of employed British men and 45 per cent of women now "usually or sometimes" work on Saturdays.

Hyperwork is about being driven. But by what? It is not simply the need for money. Hyperwork is, by traditional hourly standards, underpaid. This is about job security, about a tragic compulsion to seem keen and competitive - when all experience should teach that those who work hardest for least are the first to be thrown on the skip in hard times.

We have slain the clock - and the first result is that our time is no longer our own. Perhaps in the end the empowerment granted by new technology will outweigh the forces out to terrorise and casualise workers who have given up their watches. But until then the dead Enemy, with white face and stilled hands, will seem more like a lost friend.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'