Thursday, February 17, 2005

Commodifying time

Time is the most precious thing we have. It's the only thing that's absolutely scarce, and always will be. In a sense, it is the measure of all value, and in another sense its value cannot be measured. Attempts to commodify time are thus inevitable -- those commodities which appear to deliver more time is invaluable -- and yet doomed to fail, serving only to remind us how mastery over time eludes us. (The repeated fantasy of the time machine, which has probably been a human dream since clocks were invented, testifies to this.)

Goods promising convenience and efficiency are most profitable when consumers feel the pinch of a time squeeze. But one's perception of a time squeeze is itself the product of an overarching concern for efficiency. Efficiency makes one aware of time only in the guise of its being wasted, spent. Efficiency makes one wish to cheat time rather than exist within it; it's an attempt to remove oneself from the very medium in which life occurs. It is alienation from life itself.

We are only squeezed for time when we are aware of our being removed from within it, when we are alienated from life experience, when we fail to understand the logic or purpose of the work we're doing. When working life makes us feel dead, out of time, we become acutely concerned with efficiency (as our bosses are during this dead work-time) -- the imperative to save time only occurs to us in those moments when we are at our furtherest remove from it, when it seems to us an abstract quantity with theoretic value. When we are alive within it, its value never occurs to us -- it receded back into an a priori, a pre-conceptual category necessary for us to be.

So time is something whose value we only note when we are wasting it, hence we tend to waste more and more time to remind ourselves continually how valuable the unknown quantity of time we possess is. We make an abstraction of time, separate ourselves from it, and seek to possess it as material thing, in the form of commodities that promise convenience, efficiency, organization, et cetera. But the more those commodities commodify time for us, the more acutely we feel the need to commodify more of it, seek more convenience, more efficency. We remove ourselves further and further from being in time.

Paradoxically, one of the ways management makes workers aware of the value of time is by making them waste it at work, maintaining inflexible work schedules that, as Juliet Schor points out in The Overworked American, prevents people from choosing leisure when they've accumulated suitable income on a week to week basis. Real choices about how many hours one needs to work would restore one to time in a way that would deprive capital of the profits to be had in commodifying it. So the artificially long hours keep us aware of convenience (of time as thing) and makes us long for convenience, make us see it as more and more valuable to us. And convenience becomes more and more profitable.

And the time squeeze we experience also encourages us to use commodities in general as shortcuts to experience. Lacking the time to experience the meaningful production of things through our own decisions and effort, we buy things that imply that effort, and content ourselves with that -- we even begin to think we are somehow "beating the system" through this shortcut, though we are actually burglarizing our own lives of substance and active engagement.

1 comment:

  1. My suggestion is to start an organic garden.