The Clock Inside Us

Once a weapon to combat idleness, the clock has become a prosthesis, augmenting the human body to override its need for rest

IF time is money, then sleep is theft. Today’s cult of busyness regards sleep as a defect that threatens to render people competitively unfit. In a recent article for the Guardian, Lucy Rock wrote about CEOs’ “competitive sleep deprivation,” with top executives sleeping for a mere three to four hours, mimicking Margaret Thatcher’s four-hour sleep cycle when she was in office. Similarly, Angela Ahrendts, head of retail at Apple and former CEO of Burberry, has claimed she “gets a headache when she sleeps for more than six hours.”

Such enthusiasm for sleeplessness seems to make an executive virtue out of a capitalistic necessity. But it has deep epistemological roots. In the wake of Enlightenment and in tandem with the emergence of capitalism, humans began to view nature as a pool of resources to be tamed, mastered, owned, and directed toward fulfilling human desires. It wasn’t long before this conquest of nature was redirected toward the intransigencies of human nature. Despite all the technological advances that positivistic science yielded, humans were still faced with their own physical limitations. They could build skyscrapers of glass and steel that defied gravity in the name of human reason, yet they could not tame the unreasonable demands of their own body for rest.

The attempt to tame the body of its unprofitable tendency to tire began as an effort to make “saving time” a moral issue. Sixteenth-century moralist and mercantilist discourses already regarded punctuality as a prerequisite for the conception of a modern man, the pinnacle of social development in an imagined context of linear progress. British historian E.P. Thompson points out in “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” that toward the end of the 17th century, as wage labor relations began to become more prevalent, time began to be conceived as a precious commodity to be spent rather than merely passed. “Those who are employed experience a distinction between their employer’s time and their ‘own’ time,” Thompson notes. “And the employer must use the time of his labor, and see that it is not wasted.” Tolling bells and fines levied by employers taught students and workers that their time was being counted, that it was a regulated and regimented currency.

Moralists urged “time thrift,” and framed the waste of time as summoning divine punishment. As British nonconformist minister Oliver Heywood put it in the 17th century tract Meetness for Heaven, “This is our working day, our market time … O Sirs, sleep now, and awake in hell, whence there is no redemption.” Paternalist and colonialist discourses, whether in addressing the English poor or indigenous people from developing countries, represented idleness as a trait of those who are “naturally inferior.” For instance, as Thompson notes, clergyman John Clayton’s pamphlet “Friendly Advice to the Poor” urges the factory worker, whom he refers to as a “sluggard,” to use his time efficiently and refrain from “dulling his spirit by Indolence.” Similarly, where theories of social evolutionism gained prominence, time discipline was seen as essential for the transition to “mature societies.” Thompson notes how economic-growth theorists viewed Mexican mineworkers as “indolent and childlike people” because of their deficient time discipline.

Parallel to the rise of “time thrift” comes the monumental role of the clock. In 17th century Britain, clocks restructured work habits by materializing the ethic of time thrift, setting a clear demarcation between “work” and “life” and reminding workers of their tasks. The omnipresence of clocks was a guarantor of regulation, it ensured the institution of order in the workspace. The clock’s ubiquity legitimized time discipline and naturalized it, making it banal and commonsensical. It made sure that no one escaped the tempo.

One might say that the clock becomes a subject, with agency in its own right, shaping social customs and subjecting people to its rhythms. As anthropologist Bruno Latour has argued, technology and things are not simply animated by humans but also mediate human action. And as anthropologist Benjamin Snyder argues, clocks served the purpose of training and manipulating the body to accomplish set tasks, thereby “turning it into an inexhaustible source of energy.” The incessant sound of the ticking clock, the mounting anxiety it almost automatically evokes, has come to regulate the body and embed it within the culture of busyness.

If clocks are agents that shape human actions, is it valid to assume that clocks are an “other”? By making sure everyone maximizes their efficiency, clocks address the physical limitations of the human body, becoming a kind of prosthesis that pushes humans closer to reaching an “optimal” state of activity.

This is reflected in the late 19th century emergence of the idea of an “internal clock,” which exemplifies how biological processes can be redefined in terms of prominent material objects. By this means, the ideology of time discipline— inseparable from the clock—becomes seen as a natural imperative. In the wake of the clock’s ubiquity, positivist and scientific rhetoric began to depict the biological clock as an “endogenous” factor that operates according to “innate” biological rhythms, leading to medical advice shaped by the metaphors it employs: “how to reset your internal clock” and so on. Such advice points to the mechanization of the body, which now requires “daily maintenance.”

It may seem as if the presence of a master clock in our brains, which synchronizes and sets sleeping patterns on its own, means we no longer need an outside force to tame our bodies. Our bodies have internalized this systemic regulation, becoming in this sense, machinic. However, what implications arise from this? This mechanization of the body—a precursor and template for the ongoing reconceptualization of the self in terms of quantities alone—reflects how our bodies have become products, rather than agents, of a culture of busyness and rationality that glorifies productivity. Scientific discourses have succeeded in masking the way we’ve been clocked in and can no longer clock out.