What do you mean by "time" anyway?

It’s a fair question. But time is not a static phenomenon; it is affected by our perceptions. Einstein showed us that time can be bent through gravitational force. Marx showed us that time can be bent by what we collectively value.

A lot of us would simply take time for granted and all nod in agreement when someone might say they “don’t have a lot of time.” But what does time really mean?

Time is a favourite topic among philosophers. An entire sub-discipline of philosophy — metaphysics — deals with time as a problem of physics. I’m looking at time as a philosophical problem too, insofar as I’m not assuming time to be a taken-for-granted concept.

All time, according to many scholars, is “social time” and not this solid, unchanging thing. Instead, time is a product of its social environment. TenHouten, for example, found that Australian Aborigines experienced time much differently that Euro-Australians. Aborigines understood time as cyclical, not sequential, and they didn’t think of time in terms of cause and effect. Nor did they understand “clock time” in the same way. Instead, they saw time as a series of patterns to be understood, and not a linear progression into the future that could be represented by a clock on the wall.

This concept of time is closer to what Adam would call “natural time.” But most of us know “social time,” or time that is shaped by our social environment.

What is “social time” for people in interactive agencies?

Thompson would argue that it is clock-based time, not “task-based time.” This kind of time emerged, according to Thompson, in the Industrial Revolution. Notions of “hours” or “minutes” made little sense to people at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but Thompson argues the changing face of industry changed the face of time itself.

This is what Adam means by “social time.” Time is a product of the social context.

Thompson’s idea of time takes a page from Marx. Marx’s entire work, believe it or not, is a political economy of time. Many people see Marx’s work as “communist” or “socialist” or “radical.” It may well be all those things, but it is also, essentially, a study of time.

In Marx’s theory of value, there is no value for labour but “use value” or the value it brings from its use. So the 2 hours it takes to make a cabinet is worth…a cabinet. But in capitalism, labour becomes this commodity that is traded for money. In other words, its value becomes “exchange value” or what you get for exchanging it for money.

For Aborigines, for example, this notion of time is not complete. They don’t think of labour in terms of exchange value, so they don’t see time as a linear concept.

Neary and Rikowski argue that Marx is to value as Einstein is to gravity. Now before you go, “HUH?!??” let me explain. They suggest that Newton understood gravity to be this unchanging, static thing. Well we all know now that that view was wrong. Einstein showed us that gravity “bends time.” Neary and Rikowski argue that Marx shows that value “bends time” too.

So time is not simply a static entity. Time is actually a product of a shared social existence (as well as gravitational force). Time does not naturally occur as a clock on the wall, but it is the system of production that has allowed us all to share this notion of time.


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