Technologies of Time and the Tyranny of Convenience

In my previous post, I proposed an operation of power provisionally called the tyranny of convenience in which all space becomes so flattened – there is no difference between travelling one way and travelling another – that travelers will almost always take the most convenient route, not because they are forced to by circumstance but because there is no reason to do things any differently. While something like a GPS might make improvisation through space more possible in theory, it makes it less likely in practice because circumstances that might encourage improvisation are removed.

In this post, I want to propose that a similar shift has occurred with respect to time, especially as it pertains to the boundary between work and non-work. With the development of the internet and work-related software, it is possible for more and more people to work anytime, anywhere. Portable electronics and the internet have extended the office to include any place with a wifi signal and this, in turn, has made all time homogenous and available for work since it is not marked according to the habitation of different places. In theory, this means that one’s time – the division and distribution of work and leisure – is under one’s own control because the time for work is not restricted to a particular place. One is more free to make one’s own decisions about when one does and does not work. It would therefore seem that the dislocation of work from place would encourage greater freedom, creativity, improvisation etc.

For many, however, this so-called freedom has in fact made work more of a tyrant than ever. We are more free to determine for ourselves how it is that we spend our time, and yet, somehow, we are also less free to do so. We feel compelled by forces that are difficult to name to work or to be available to work nearly constantly. I’ve recently been reading a book called The Disrupted Workplace: Time and the Moral Order of Flexible Capitalism, in which the author, Benjamin Snyder, says “Telling workers they can work when and where they want might mean they end up working all the time because they can no longer meaningfully distinguish between work and non-work time-space.” It is this idea of a “meaningful” distinction between work and non-work that is interesting to me.

Snyder’s concerns are actually much broader than simply a concern for the boundary between work-time and non-work time He’s interested in the texture of work time itself in the era of flexible capitalism. The eroding of the boundaries between work-time and non-work-time is only one part of a larger work culture that values flexibility, disruption, improvisation, creativity etc., not primarily for the sake of the worker but because it makes companies more competitive by freeing them from long-term commitments. In other words, the power-structures responsible for the creeping of work-time into non-work-time are complex and multi-faceted.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the erosion of the meaningful distinction between work-time and non-work-time is helped along by a similar mechanism to that which discourages deviation from one’s route in space: convenience. Another way of expressing the fact that technology has made it possible to work anywhere is to say that work is now very convenient. It is merely checking email, or writing an email, or posting on this message board or that productivity app. Technology has lowered the barriers to working because individual work-tasks are in themselves often very easy, even if they are cumulatively complex (which in turn ratchets up the urgency of near-constant attention). It is nearly as easy and as convenient to work as to not work. And so, we do it all the time because there’s no reason not to. The power that work has come to hold over time lies in its being innocuous, in its being LIKE leisure. Work controls all of time because there is now very little to distinguish work from time itself.

Therefore, in both the case of space and time, a certain homogeneity creates a tyranny of convenience, which slopes space-time in particular directions. Space is sloped towards familiarity and time is sloped towards work. Paradoxically, however, this homogenizing effect is coupled with a kind of fragmenting and disruption of both space and time. This is actually the subject of Snyder’s book and it is the subject of my next post, but it seemed important to first point out that the kinds of fragmentation that we are more inclined to think of as the hallmark of contemporary society are only made possible by the smoothing of previously-existing distinctions into a homogeneity that may subsequently be cut up however certain powers deem most useful. While corporations tend to make those cuts on the basis of profit and competitiveness and risk-management, individuals may attempt to make those cuts on the basis of convenience. In the case of time – and this is Snyder’s point – that convenience is a convenience of meaning-making. If spatial markers of time are removed, so too are certain markers of identity. We tend to rely instead on work-activities to create identity because perhaps there is little else available, little else that is socially-recognizable (stable communities, proximal extended family, non-work-based social roles, community causes). To reach for work as an answer to “who am I?” which is always also “how do I spend my time?”” is to reach for the most convenient answer.

Categories: Politics, Sociology

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