The tyranny of time

Apr 18 2020

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Irfan Husain
Irfan Husain

WHERE did all the unanswered prayers go? What happened to our dreams? And who crushed our creativity?

Clearly, some malign agency is hard at work to erase our humanity, and turn us into automatons that follow orders. Gradually, our individuality has been hollowed out, and we have become enslaved to forces beyond our ken.

From the dawn of civilisation, the process of enslavement has proceeded without let-up. First, it was the formation of tribes that dictated our place in the hierarchy. These groups assembled to make hunting easier, and then to defend their prey from other tribes. The next step was the emergence of hunter-gatherers who occupied and held territory to use for grazing animals and growing edible crops.

The nation was mankind’s next evolutionary step. Here, standing armies were formed to defend territory against enemies, and when the opportunity or provocation warranted it, to attack and seize a neighbour’s land, gold and women. In all these farming, hunting and soldiering enterprises, individuals had their own roles to play, and paid a heavy price for delinquency and desertion.

The fault lies with human greed, not the innocent timepiece.

The feudal state came next, with warlords controlling fiefdoms and pledging their loyalty to the king. Here, feudal lords paid troops to fight for the king as the need arose. In return, the king allowed them to pass on their land and title to their heirs.

The age of colonialism brought about another transformation, with foreign invaders colonising land, collecting taxes and forcing the locals to buy their industrial output. Brute force and religion were used to enforce colonial rule. In the West, much of the wealth squeezed from the colonies went to pay for the new industries that sprang up. Colonial officials acquired large personal fortunes from the loot and plunder they engaged in. As in a kaleidoscope, the glass bits whirled around, and the balance of power tilted again.

But it was during the Industrial Revolution that power seemed to shift permanently to the West. The colonised — even after they had appeared to free themselves — were left far behind, largely due to their own incompetence. With their energy sapped and their imagination stifled, they had only the western model to follow. And their inability to instil reason as the bedrock of their educational system did not allow them to catch up.

The rise of the corporate culture and globalisation pushed the developing world still further behind. But this development hurt workers in the West just as hard as jobs went to areas where wages were cheapest.

In all the twists and turns in the power structure that we have cursorily reviewed, none has been as transformative as the invention of the mechanical clock. This may seem trivial when compared with all the major events discussed above, but just consider the impact of the simple timepiece.

Before its appearance, we operated on a rough and ready approximation of time. ‘Dawn’, ‘dusk’ and ‘noon’ were about the extent of our temporal reference points, so workers would turn up pretty much when they pleased. It wasn’t until the invention of the pendulum clock in 1656 that time could be accurately measured. Now, quartz watches have become cheap enough for anybody to buy.

The result of this invention is to chain us to our workplace. Workers have their salaries slashed for being late, and are therefore constantly anxious as they rush to work. Gone is the luxury of relaxing in bed, or looking out at the world over a cup of coffee.

Go to any large city and you will see this worship of the clock taking place every day. As the Afghan Taliban are supposed to have told the Americans during their negotiations to end their two-decade long war: “You may have the clocks, but we have the time.”

So does it really matter if you are a bit late? According to your boss, it does. He has production targets to meet and if too many of his workers are late, he might lose his bonus. And it matters to your hostess who has cooked a meal that will grow cold if it isn’t served on time.

But surely our prayers, dreams and creativity should not be sacrificed at the altar of time. Our corporate czars should be able to build a little flexibility into their production lines to reduce the pressure on the dreamers. The reality, however, is that they want to squeeze every last unit out of us.

Shareholders and directors want their pounds of flesh in the form of dividends and bonuses. The fault lies therefore with human greed, and not the innocent timepiece that is simply the instrument used by capitalists to further enrich themselves.

And before long, Artificial Intelligence will not just replace many human workers, but also report malingerers. Worse still, it will be able to control our behaviour and get us to our office or factory on time.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2020