Clocks and Our Obsession With Time
Back when I was traveling in Pichilemu, Chile, I had a juguería (smoothie spot) that I visited everyday after surfing. One day I asked the owner what time he opened. "Oh I don't know. It's different every day. Sometimes I don't open, sometimes I do. Depends on the amount of people around. But when I do open, it's usually around 11:30am."
My western mind began to short circuit a little... "but how will I know if I'll be able to get a smoothie when I get out of the water tomorrow?" I was tied to the concept of time for orchestrating my schedule. Funny enough, we ended up reaching an agreement and he would open his shop in the morning just for me. If I ever go back, I'll be paying him a visit for a blueberry, strawberry, banana.
This wasn't a localized incident though. Across the board in these small towns, it was apparent that time doesn't hold the weight that it does in westernized society. And I've realized now that our obsession with time draws a fine line between value and stress; productivity and dissatisfaction. I've noticed that in Switzerland, people get antsy if the public transportation is just a couple minutes late; looking at their watches and pacing around. There is an uneasiness associated with being late here - and there are clocks everywhere to always remind you how late you are. In these South American towns, you can't really be late - it's all more general. "Let's meet at the beach in the afternoon." People will come when they come.
Of course, for a capitalistic society to function at optimal efficiency, we need to be focused on time. The issue is that it's so easy to become shackled by it and lose sight of the moment right in front of our eyes. It can be the source of much unnecessary stress.
I recently read the book Sapiens and Dr. Yuval Noah Harari included an interesting piece about time. Time was not actively monitored by the majority of western populations until the mid-1700's. Yes, that's correct: there were no watches or clocks actively used before this period (aside from more general timekeeping devices, like sundials). And the reason? Because the invention of trains meant that we needed train schedules so that people could get to work on time and be as productive as possible. Our obsession with time is directly related to our drive for capitalistic production. It took off in Britain:
"Finally, in 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich [Observatory Time]. For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles. This modest beginning spawned a global network of timetables , synchronized down to the tiniest fractions of a second."
Previously, our concern with time was mostly related to farming timetables for optimal harvest and planting. Now it's tied to everything we do.
I'm not trying to say that we eliminate clocks from the world. My point is that there is a profound benefit in simply taking more time and not stressing about the minutes of the day. I know it's cliche, but regardless of what the clock says, it's always now.
When in Peru, I was waking up at sunrise and going to bed when it got dark out. Everything else that occurred during the day happened as the need or desire arose. There was no lunchtime or dinnertime. I didn't have any meetings. And I can't put my finger on it, but something about this rhythm felt more natural - like I was finally synced back to the primal pace my body had evolved to follow.
Try it out sometime - can you go a whole day without looking at a clock?