I thought — and still think — of myself as a punctual man. Someone keenly aware of the passage of time, the ticking of minutes into hours, hours into days, and days into weeks. But today, in the midst of a global pandemic and a multisectoral economic downturn, my sense of time is hazy and blurred.
For those who are either unemployed or overworked, those whose habits and routines have fallen apart, those experiencing psychological or bodily distress, the days may seem to drag on endlessly. For others — perhaps those who find themselves on the pandemic’s frontlines or those who have discovered a sense of purpose and drive within the lockdown — the weeks and months fly by in a whirl of excitement and trepidation.
It’s either a brand-new world or more of the same old one, day after day.
Satisfaction explains at least part of this discrepancy. One survey conducted by researchers at the University of Delaware notes that, in April, as more Americans became comfortable in quarantine, their perception of time sped up. A similar study in the United Kingdom nevertheless found that older people and those less contented with their lives observed more of a drag in their hours than their younger and happier counterparts.
But whether the clocks run fast or slow, people around the world have come to the same conclusion that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet once did: “The time is out of joint — O cursèd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”
The New York Times reports that Canadians have been gauging the length of their confinement by the length of their prime minister’s hair. And the Huffington Post notes an abundance of people on Twitter who are keeping track of time by measuring their piles of dirty dishes, the growth of their cuticles, and the depletion of their strategic underwear reserves.
NPR has sought out the advice of a woman with dyschronometria, a neurological condition in which subjects cannot “feel” the passage of time. And outlets as different as Vox and the Financial Times have asked employers to reevaluate business models that link the amount their employees earn to the official number of hours or days worked.
Even if the passage of time now seems fickle and untrustworthy, if the clock’s rhythm seems erratic, the ability to measure simultaneity in time remains crucial to me — and to countless others. This was true before the pandemic, before timed deliveries and Zoom calls became a regular installment in at least some of our lives.
In a 1967 speech, Michel Foucault described the present day as “the epoch of simultaneity.” The French philosopher waxed poetic. This would be “the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side,” Foucault wrote. By messing with our sense of time’s progression and encouraging us to compare our situations with those of others around the globe, the pandemic has only reinforced the power of simultaneity — of a shared and synchronous experience — over our lives.
Simultaneity was not always a paramount concern. For most of the nineteenth century, the publicly available time in such cities as Paris and London varied widely. As the historian Vanessa Ogle notes in The Global Transformation of Time, 1870–1950, the synchronization of urban clocks bedeviled municipal engineers for decades. Even in newly industrialized western Europe, calendars differed from country to country. What’s more, rural communities and religious minorities measured the passing hours differently than did the ascendant bourgeoisie.
But many people did not seem to mind the discrepancies. Some simply paid men and women with chronometers to carry the “accurate” time — that is, the authoritative time — from the Paris or Greenwich observatories back to their shops. Others gathered daily at post offices and telegraph terminals to receive the time or simply wound up their watches based on the nearest and, in their opinion, most trustworthy public clock.
Then, toward the end of the century, came the pneumatic clock, and with it, a means of synchronizing tens of thousands of timepieces across a city.
The fin-de-siècle is often remembered as an age of electricity — of telegraphs, lightbulbs, and, yes, even early vibrators. But the late nineteenth centurywas also the heyday of compressed air. In 1885, for instance, Scientific American reported that the city of Paris had installed 6,000 pneumatic clocks and had built 60,000 feet of lead and iron conduits for air. That was not all.
Because pneumatic power was often cheaper and easier to install than its electric counterpart, the Compagnie Parisienne de l’Air Comprimé also remotely operated elevators, printing presses, engine lathes, sewing machines, and shredders across the city. Parisians opened a pneumatic postal service in 1866. The system survived, in one form or another, until 1984.
By itself, the pneumatic clock network was deceptively simple. Every 60 seconds, a“mother clock” on the Rue St. Fargeau in Paris would send a wave of compressed air through a system of underground pipes to thousands of “daughter clocks” scattered across the capital. Once it arrived, the gust of air would inflate a bellows, rotate a gear, and ultimately move the daughter clock’s minute hand forward.
The end result was as seductive as it had been elusive: a rough-and-ready synchronicity, at last!
But of course, the pulse of air could take anywhere between 15 and 20 seconds to arrive. That was the price of the system’s design — one that would grow harder to justify as electrical clock networks declined in cost at the start of the twentieth century.
The social change that synchronization wrought was infinitely more complicated. The French writer Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, predates the Parisian pneumatic clock network by around a decade. Hence, when the protagonist Phileas Fogg meets his valet, Jean Passepartout, one of the first things that the two men do is synchronize their clocks. “You’re late,” notes Fogg. “Forgive me, monsieur, but that’s impossible,” responds Passepartout. But the implacable Fogg continues unphased: “You are late by four minutes. No matter. We need only notice the difference.”
The discrepancies that Fogg and his contemporaries in the 1870s tolerated (despite their disapproval) became unbearable for the next generation of chronometric aficionados. In 1908, for instance, Sir John Cockburn — one of the founders of the British Science Guild — wrote that as “highly desirable as individualism is in many respects, it is out of place in horology,” the science of clocks. Indeed, he argued, unsynchronized public clocks ought to be illegal and violators should have the “offending dial” confiscated.
At the same time, synchronicity was playing a growing — although often unperceived — role in the formation of national identities. In Imagined Communities, the political theorist and historian Benedict Anderson uses the morning newspaper as a case in point.
Each newspaper reader, he writes, is aware that his or her activity is “being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.” Unlike those of us confined to our homes today, nineteenth-century newspaper readers could confirm their suspicions by stepping outside: “the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world” — that is, the world of countries and countrymen — “is visibly rooted in everyday life.”
Anderson’s description would certainly have resonated with Verne’s meticulous protagonist Fogg, who at the start of the novel, spends his long, sedentary days at the Reform Club in London, reading one newspaper after another. But it would have probably baffled the full quarter of Britain’s population that could not read.
And yet, simultaneity transformed the lives and lifestyles of even the most marginal western Europeans. The sociologist Richard Sennett notes the importance of both synchronicity and predictability to nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrial production processes. As the members of an imagined community of labor, workers wanted not only to believe that their colleagues were operating on the same schedule, toward the same objectives, but also that all this work added up to something more.
“Rationalized time enabled people to think about their lives as narratives,” Sennett contends. It gave them the ability “to define what the stages of a career ought to be like, to correlate long-term service in a firm to specific steps of increased wealth.” This required more than a grasp of synchronicity, of course. Workers relied on their sense of time’s progression — its moving forward, culminating in milestones and goals — to give them purpose and direction at work.
Meanwhile, Sennett describes the lives of those deprived by their employers of “rationalized time” as truncated and unpredictable. “Linear development is replaced by a mind-set willing to jump around,” reinforced by the sense that one’s labors do not add up, that one cannot develop a particular skillset to fruition, or that one’s education is irrelevant within a couple years after its acquisition.
Although Sennett contends that these characteristics are unique to workers in contemporary neoliberal firms — those that have toppled their career ladders and undermined the possibility of progress within their institutions — the argument could also be applied to those furloughed or let go during this pandemic.
Despite the fact that, in some companies, productivity appears to have increased since lockdown measures came into effect, many workers observe that their lives are now more hectic and less meaningful than they were before. Professional development opportunities have dried up. Meanwhile, university presidents fret that their institutions’ degrees appear to have decreased in value relative to their cost.
The coronavirus pandemic made it around the world in far fewer than 80 days. But as most readers no doubt already know, this plague has been composed of local and regional outbreaks that erupted at different times and unfolded at different paces.
Picture Anderson’s newspaper reader today. He or she scrolls through articles in the Guardian or Le Monde, aware that thousands (if not millions) of others are doing the same. But combined with this awareness is a heightened sense of difference, a juxtaposition between those who are healthy and those who are unwell, those who are able to socialize and those who cannot, those who find their material circumstances relatively unaffected and those whose entire worlds have been turned upside down.
The bottom line: we are now subject to the same experience, but in vastly different ways.
Sergio Infante is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs.