Friday, August 14, 2009

The Dictatorship of Time

Part 6 of Prisoners of the Real

The use of powerful tools has not only increased productivity; it has changed humanity's fundamental relationship to time. Since the renaissance, when the modern relationship between time and money was established, time has been "spent" in order to increase power. But in attempting to move faster and live by the clock, we have fallen out of phase with our environment, and further escalation will only deepen the disharmony. Replacing the biological clock with the mechanical clock, in a vain attempt to stay "connected" with the natural world, has proved to be a fatal mistake.


In the 18th century a new definition was added to humanity's concept of time: the "amount of time" worked under a specific contract, or, in other words, "pay equivalent to the period worked." This idea, initially connected to naval service, coincided with time's emerging relationship to the Protestant ethic. The refusal of Protestants to recognize the saints, a major step in the secularizing of life, also removed the 100 days that had previously been reserved for their celebration. These additional points in time were subsequently added to the work year as the West gradually began to sacralize work.

Early factory life experiences of the industrial revolution confirmed, however, that automation wasn’t likely to give us more control over time – even the leisure variety. The more likely prospect was that it would lead to increased regulation in the life of every person. Humanity had tied life to the oscillatory processes of work, and both were now controlled by the clock.

Even today the image of expanded choices remains illusory. Most people experience days of "non-work," periods crowded with maintenance tasks and largely lacking in creative meaning. Such times are little more than interludes between periods of work. Life is synchronized by an artificial time known as the "clock," which in turn is synchronized by work. Thus, human beings are synchronized to work, rather than technology being synchronized to humanity.

And what of work's creative meaning? The clock's presence in almost every part of life, along with the necessity of fixing and regulating events in time sequences, has led to the belief that what one sells in a work relationship is time as well as – and often instead of – skills. And a related impression: that we sell time rather than labor. Qualitative measures, sometimes described as performance standards, may be propped up by incentives or roped to security needs, yet they are mainly superfluous. When performance is rewarded, with the expectation that such reinforcement will keep quality high enough, the worker is still being paid for time.

Time has thus become the definer of our lives, often separating us from the consequences of our acts.

As psychologist Thomas Szasz wrote, "Men are not rewarded or punished for what they do, but rather for how their acts are defined. This is why men are more interested in better justifying themselves than in better behaving themselves." The implications of his remark stretch to the world of work and the systemic health of organizations. Through the clock, work has come to be defined as time rather than activity. As a result, it has become far easier to deny responsibility for results, or even intentions. The important thing, after all, is that we've "put in our time." In so doing and thinking, we restrict our relations with our environment, putting out but not taking much in.

Anyone who has worked in a civil service bureaucracy knows, for example, that the real boss is the time clock. The average day is a series of short, fragmented work periods, interrupted by standardized breaks. The concentrated effort that can result from freely chosen, extended work periods is virtually outlawed. Instead, atomization of work time minimizes results. In addition, time can place serious constraints on individual initiative, even assigning it an unstated negative value. And once initiative is gone, can commitment be far behind?

Even when there is no time clock to punch, other arbitrary standards linked to time can undermine effort and promote robotic response. In many bureaucracies and businesses, high visibility can serve as a substitute for actually accomplishing anything. Not only does the elevation of visibility to a standard of performance leave the impression that "being seen" is as important as effort itself, it also represents a subtle rejection of the principle that goals can be reached from different starting points and in different ways. In system theory, this is known as "equifinality," a proposition adopted from observations of biological phenomena.

The German biologist and philosopher Hans Adolf Driesch first encountered the principle of equfinality in experiments on the embryos of sea urchins in early development. A normal sea urchin, he discovered, can develop from a complete ovum, from two halves of a divided ovum, or from the fusion of two whole ova. Driesch concluded that the basis of life is a non-mechanistic vital agency, a soul-like factor that governs processes in foresight of goals. Borrowing from Aristotle, he called this factor "entelechy," claimed that it contradicted basic ideas of physics, and subsequently became a vitalist. His own observations had led him to the belief that vital phenomena are inexplicable in terms of natural science.

One does not have to become a vitalist, however, to see that visibility and other time-related standards undermine creative impulses that often produce the best and most original work.

Similar to visibility, filler – a term commonly used in various media – is activity designed to stretch the time worked. When an unsupervised employee, for example, is expected to meet a standard work time requirement, he or she may go to great lengths to pad the record. One former colleague, faced with the challenge of filling 40 hours a week, would take long drives to meet with people and claim his travel time as part of his work. Most of the business discussed on these excursions might just as easily have been handled over the phone. And certainly, the money he received as reimbursement for his travel could have been put to better use. Because he was responsible for filling time, however, he could avoid the ethical questions. Complying with the clock's requirements, he had retreated from his consciousness of freedom. As Jean-Paul Sartre noted, this recognition is too often denied.

Most people flee from freedom, said Sartre, instead "taking refuge in the 'serious world.' This is the realm of convention where one unquestioningly accepts as absolutes the prevailing values of the group in which one finds oneself." In responding to the clock, too many of us deny the existence and demands of freedom, replacing responsibility with filler.

As these examples suggest, the elevation of time as the crucial criterion of accountability has in many respects undermined important organizational values, including that sacred cow known as efficiency. Ironically, time and motion study experts, behavioral engineers and operations researchers have repressed the human capacity to find the way to accomplish tasks that best suits individual physical structures and psychological make ups. In fact, most continue to insist that for every job there is a single best way, the "most efficient" in terms of time and effort. Their denial of the individual's ability to make wise choices is much like an anthropologist who tries to teach native people how to save steps in a traditional dance.

Objective researchers have also failed to calculate their impacts on the objects of their inquiries. When workers internalize that their performance is viewed through the screen of minutes and hours, a distorted definition of work begins to evolve. Eventually, they will come to see their work as passive, largely reactive presence on the job, and conclude that both ends and means are beyond their range of concerns.

In his novel, Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut posed the question: "To what extent are human beings sacred, and to what extent are they machines?" The extreme answer given by his hero, car dealer Dwayne Hoover, is reminiscent of Descartes, an arch-rationalist who felt that all creatures except human beings were automata:


"Of all the creatures in the universe, only Dwayne was thinking and feeling and worrying and planning and so on. Nobody else knew what pain was. Nobody else had any choices to make. Everybody was a fully automated machine."


In a rationally-managed world, organized on the base of linear time, it is far too easy to expand such a definition even further, accepting the idea that it is work and not humanity that is sacred, and that we too have joined the ranks of the fully automated machines.


Next:
Rules for Rationals


Previous:

The Creative Also Destroys

Deconstructing Leadership

Anatomy of Insecurity

Managers and Their Tools

The Corporate Way of Life

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