Standing at the Crossroads — Lew Rosenbaum
[I wrote this on January 1, 2018. I think of this piece as stimulated in part by an article in Rally Comrades! entitled “What Time Is It?” as well as the musings of what goes into a transition from one year to another. (Click the title to read the article)]
My New Year’s post from last night has been pricking my brain, why are we so consumed by the change from one year to the next? Well, of course there is the sense that we want this next period to do better by us than the last one did. Nothing terribly deep about that. But thinking about this took me back to Stephen Hawking, who published a book (April Fools day 1988) call A Brief History of Time. He joked that he sold more books on physics
than Madonna did on sex. And it’s not really a joke.
It’s a book that raises a whole lot of questions about what we mean about time. When did time “begin”? Will time “end”? Is the universe infinite? How does time relate to the earth as center of the universe, vs. the earth revolving around the sun? These are the big questions. But the last question approaches how and why we measure time.
Humans have measured time for thousands of years. I’m using “measure” in a way to mean constructing some “machine” to gauge the passage of time. This would be more than gazing up at the skies and estimating how much “time” would pass before night fell. Or to figure how much of the season was left before snow might fall. Casual estimates of time passage were common long before sundials or hour glasses were built. Agricultural societies demanded more. You had to be able to predict seasons more accurately. You had to be able to estimate the length of the day better. Every culture across the globe experimented with different methods of measuring “solar time.” (Things like hour glasses expanded the concept beyond solar time, because you could measure time at night). There was no need, however, to reconcile time in Turkestan with time in Rome, for example. It basically didn’t matter.
Until, that is, when navigation demanded more accurate time measurement at different parts of the globe; and when scientific advances made time standardization more possible. This is when portable timepieces were first manufactured. It’s in this period that time zones were proposed, which only became standardized around 1900. From the middle of the 19th century to the first World War industrial capitalism developed at its most rapid rate. At the same time, capital began to be exported in a new system Lenin called imperialism. Communications dramatically expanded using the modern invention, the telephone and telegraph. capitalism demands that the work day be calculated precisely. Communications and transportation require that you need to know what the time of day is in other parts of the world that you are communicating with or transporting to. And the solar day, that ancient natural division of the day, became the way of dividing the globe into 24 equal time zones (more or less 15 degrees of the 360 degree globe).
It’s not surprising that the center of the globe in the mid nineteenth century was England, specifically Greenwich. It’s not surprising that this construct reflects the industrial powerhouse of that century and the imperial powerhouse of that century. We don’t think about this because it has no practical significance in our daily lives. But why should time be different in Gary, Indiana than a few miles west in Chicago, Illinois? That is practical and something we take for granted as well. Or why should Indiana be the same as New York, for that matter? And why does China, a country with a very broad expanse far greater than 15 degrees of the earth’s circumference,– why does China choose to have only one time zone? If I want to call my friends on the West Coast to wish them a Happy New Year, I’d best not do that when I wake up in the morning, because my 8 am is their 6 am.
Technology has changed how we are ruled by “time” just as it is changing how we use it. It’s a truism that industrial capitalism ties workers to the time clock. How does robotics change this? One aspect of this of course is the lights out factory: a factory with no need for lights because workers no longer work and need to see in the factory, a 24 hour a day operation where there is no difference between night and day. It has changed communication as well. This note is being written at noon and being “broad cast” to the universe at about the same time. But it will be read or accessed at the decision of the reader at a “time” convenient for that person. No one will be awakened by a phone call in the middle of the “night” to read this screed.
Eliminating borders between night and day, between time zones, can be liberating or imprisoning. We will either be liberated from the stringent control that capitalism has placed on our time; or technology is becoming a weapon to enslave us further in a kind of electronic monitoring our daily activity, a further development of private property under fascism. That is the crossroads at which we stand. Everything until now has been a step by step development within advancing private property. Now we stand on a threshold of something new, of getting rid of the dominance of private property. It’s challenging to think of what the use of time would mean in a society not ruled by private property. And there is no better time than now to start thinking about it!