Time and the Machine

Time and the Machine by Aldous Huxley (1936)

Time, as we know it, is a very recent invention. The modern time-sense is hardly older than the United States. It is a by-product of industrialism – a sort of psychological analogue of synthetic perfumes and aniline dyes.

Time is our tyrant. We are chronically aware of the moving minute hand, even of the moving second hand. We have to be. There are trains to be caught, clocks to be punched, tasks to be done in specified periods, records to be broken by fractions of a second, machines that set the pace and have to be kept up with. Our consciousness of the smallest units of time is now acute. To us, for example, the moment 8:17 A.M. means something—something very important, if it happens to be the starting time of our daily train. To our ancestors, such an odd eccentric instant was without significance  –  did not even exist. In inventing the locomotive, Watt and Stevenson were part inventors of time.1 [emphasis mine]

Another time-emphasizing entity is the factory and its dependent, the office. Factories exist for the purpose of getting certain quantities of goods made in a certain time. The old artisan worked as it suited him with the result that consumers generally had to wait for the goods they had ordered from him. The factory is a device for making workmen hurry. The machine revolves so often each minute; so many movements have to be made, so many pieces produced each hour. Result: the factory worker (and the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the office worker) is compelled to know time in its smallest fractions. In the hand-work age there was no such compulsion to be aware of minutes and seconds.

Our awareness of time has reached such a pitch of intensity that we suffer acutely whenever our travels take us into some corner of the world where people are not interested in minutes and seconds. The unpunctuality of the Orient, for example, is appalling to those who come freshly from a land of fixed meal-times and regular train services. For a modern American or Englishman, waiting is a psychological torture. An Indian accepts the blank hours with resignation, even with satisfaction. He has not lost the fine art of doing nothing. Our notion of time as a collection of minutes, each of which must be filled with some business or amusement, is wholly alien to the Oriental, just as it was wholly alien to the Greek. For the man who lives in a pre-industrial world, time moves at a slow and easy pace; he does not care about each minute, for the good reason that he has not been made conscious of the existence of minutes.3

This brings us to a seeming paradox.2 Acutely aware of the smallest constituent particles of time – of time, as measured by clock-work and train arrivals and the revolutions of machines – industrialized man has to a great extent lost the old awareness of time in its larger divisions. The time of which we have knowledge is artificial, machine-made time. Of natural, cosmic time, as it is measured out by sun and moon, we are for the most part almost wholly unconscious. Pre-industrial people know time in its daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms. They are aware of sunrise, noon and sunset, of the full moon and the new; of equinox and solstice; of spring and summer, autumn and winter. All the old religions, including Catholic Christianity, have insisted on this daily and seasonal rhythm. Pre-industrial man was never allowed to forget the majestic movement of cosmic time.

Industrialism and urbanism have changed all this. One can live and work in a town without being aware of the daily march of the sun across the sky; without ever seeing the moon and stars. Broadway and Piccadilly are our Milky Way; out constellations are outlined in neon tubes. Even changes of season affect the townsman very little. He is the inhabitant of an artificial universe that is, to a great extent, walled off from the world of nature. Outside the walls, time is cosmic and moves with the motion of sun and stars. Within, it is an affair of revolving wheels and is measured in seconds and minutes – at its longest, in eight-hour days and six-day weeks. We have a new consciousness; but it has been purchased at the expense of the old consciousness.

1I located this essay through the article on James Watt on Wikipedia, which referenced a magazine article from 1973 which cited the emphasized quote. It turns out that this six paragraph essay was printed in a wide variety of writing text books, including An American Rhetoric by William Whyte Watt. I love this Amazon review of An American Rhetoric:

This book is, unfortunately for the literary world, out of print although it is probably only of interest to ‘true and thoughtful’ followers of English composition and literature. I am interested in the teaching of Mr Watt and also other leaders and instructors who developed the notions of creative and responsible writing that influenced writers of the period from the 1950s through the 1980s, after which, sadly to say, literature seemes to have ‘gone to hell in a handbasket’. I believe it is unfortunate that these fine Professors of detail and research have fallen into disfavor. I purchased the book at a premium price in order to once again enjoy the detailed works and guidance of one of the few who clung to attention and to fact and extactness. [sic]

2  The usage of this essay for evaluation of comprehension has persisted, a evidenced by this notation of the 2002 New York State Regents English Literary Arts Exams:

3. Day Two, Part One: The “Compare and Contrast” Essay: The exam uses the last two paragraphs of a six-paragraph essay by Aldous Huxley, Time and the Machine. The altered passage now begins with the sentence: “This brings us to a seeming paradox.” Students cannot know what “this” refers to, without the preceding paragraphs. Compounding the problem, students are asked to answer a question about what the “paradox” refers to.

3 This paragraph, elaborating on the paradox of the culturally specific creation of time, was perhaps the offending part to the NYS examiners. Huxley’s deployment of cultural difference was not politically correct, but it was hardly racist. These days though, it seems accurate because I suspect no corner of the globe can be characterized as “pre-industrial.” This oversimplified version of culturally relative “time” doesn’t wear well into the twenty-first century. It’s more far more complex than six paragraphs can describe.