On the Clock: Technology, Liturgy, and Time

There are a handful of anecdotes or canonical passages that get repeatedly invoked by critics and pundits writing about technology. My guess would be that Socrates’ critique of writing in Plato’s Phaedrus is the most common of these frequently cited vignettes. Among other things, Socrates worried about the effects of writing on memory. Contemporary critics often, and in my view misguidedly, take this as an archetypal example of the sort of unnecessary handwringing that always accompanies the appearance of a new technology.

Another frequently cited discussion, usually traced back to Lewis Mumford, involves the invention of mechanical clocks. The mechanical clock almost certainly emerged within a monastery and was more than likely designed to help monks regularize their observance of the liturgical hours (Friedel, A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium). But it subsequently goes on to become a crucial instrument in modernity’s secularization of time. In fact, philosopher Espen Hammer has argued that modernity itself is "unimaginable without clock time." According to Hammer, and he is not alone in articulating this account, "With the rise of the chronometer came a vast increase in discipline, efficiency and social speed, transforming every institution and human endeavor. The factory, the office, transportation, business, the flow of information, indeed almost everything we do and relate to is to a greater or lesser extent controlled by the clock." In this telling, medieval time, ordered by the rhythms of both the natural order and of the Christian liturgy, gives away to radically different experience of time.

This story, then, is often deployed as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of technology. It is a reminder, as well, that the effects of a technology, particularly in the long run, are to some degree independent of the particular uses to which a technology might be put and also of the intentions of the inventor(s). By its abstraction and fragmentation of time, the mechanical clock led to the reordering of the human experience of time, and it did so regardless of the specific aims of the countless individual instances of time-keeping that it enabled. The consequence was in the use itself.

The question of time was on my mind after reading Steven Poole’s broadside against the vapid “cult of productivity,” which aims to quantify and rationalize every aspect of our waking (and non-waking) life in order to ensure maximum productivity.

“In the vanguard of ‘productivity’ literature and apps was David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) system, according to which you can become ‘a wizard of productivity’ by organising your life into folders and to-do lists. The GTD movement quickly spread outside the confines of formal work and became a way to navigate the whole of existence: hence the popularity of websites such as Lifehacker that offer nerdy tips on rendering the messy business of everyday life more amenable to algorithmic improvement. If you can discover how best to organise the cables of your electronic equipment or ‘clean stubborn stains off your hands with shaving cream’, that, too, adds to your ‘productivity’—assuming that you will spend the time that is notionally saved on a sanctioned ‘task,’ rather than flopping down exhausted on the sofa and waking groggily seven hours later from what you were sternly advised should have been a power nap of exactly 20 minutes. If you need such ‘downtime,’ it must be rigorously scheduled.”

This joyless posture toward life depends on the prior rationalization of time achieved by the mechanical clock. Poole is right, in fact, to trace a straight line from Frederick W. Taylor’s program for “scientific management” to the contemporary fascination with “productivity.” Taylor’s method relied heavily on “time-studies” accomplished with stopwatch in hand. Productivity apps on smartphone now promise to do for the rest of our lives what Taylor sought to achieve in the factory. Implicit in this Taylorite liturgy is a particular understanding of time as a perpetually dwindling resource that must be managed, an understanding of time made plausible by the emergence of mechanical time-keeping.

It’s not uncommon to assume that the mere use of technology is morally neutral and what is of moral consequence are the particular ends to which the technology is put. It is, on this account, the action done with the technology, and perhaps its motives, that bears ethical scrutiny. The relevant question is “What action is being performed and is this action good or bad?” This is an important question, but it is not the only question one could ask. It’s also worth asking what sort of person the use of a particular technology might make of the user. To answer this question we need to consider what habits and dispositions the use of a technology inculcates, how it shapes perception, or how it conditions our experience of space and time. The typical experience of time in modern, Western societies, for instance, is inseparable from the conceptualization of time made possible by the mechanical clock. This perception of time then becomes the ground for later economic and cultural developments. And these developments, in so far as they shape action in the world, are ultimately of moral consequence.

I referred above to a Taylorite liturgy, and I meant this quite concretely. Liturgies are formative practices that sustain and enact a vision of the good life, including a specific orientation to time. Christian liturgical practices, whether ordered around the weekly keeping of Sabbath or the yearly rhythm of Advent, Lent, and ordinary time, encourage us to understand time as the space of God’s self-disclosure aimed at an eschatological consummation. Time in this understanding is a gracious gift, not a scarce commodity to be managed. As Wendell Berry has put it, "We live the given life, and not the planned." The Taylorite liturgy, on the other hand, inspires a vision of the good life dominated by efficiency and productivity, and these measured principally in economic terms.

Of course, we cannot very well escape the experience of clock time at this historical juncture, nor should we necessarily want to. While I've clearly emphasized some of its more disordered qualities, it is, like most things human, a mixed bag. But understanding something of its technological origins may help us see it for what it is. It is tempting to think of the experience of time as a given, but we need only visit a culture not in the thrall of clock time to realize that it is not. If our modern experience of time is not a given structure native to the way things are and must be, then we might conceive of it as one of those patterns of this age that the Apostle Paul urges believers to resist. Such resistance might then free us to receive time in faith and fill it with love as we anticipate its unfolding with hope.