Time, Culture and the Digital Age

Image by Şahin Sezer Dinçer from Pixabay

Humans and time have been evolving in lockstep with technology ever since we invented stone tools. The stone axe sped up time for humans in a significant way as we could hunt more efficiently and process our meals and hides for clothing faster. Today’s digital technologies are again having a huge impact on how we perceive and manage time.

With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the advent of technology that enabled mass manufacturing changed not just our societal structures, but how we perceived and governed our time. For factory workers, every second was measured, movements were synchronised to machines.

As riots over pay and working conditions happened during the early parts of the Industrial Age, it wasn’t just fair wages that workers wanted, it was also time. Days of rest, more reasonable work hours. Contrary to popular belief, the Luddites didn’t hate technology. They wanted better pay and personal time.

Fast forward to today and we now have businesses that have filed and won lawsuits over employee time theft, such as this case in the Canadian province of British Columbia. An accountant who worked from home was ordered to repay her employer $1,500 for what they called “time theft.”

For industry, time is an economic unit of measure tied to productivity and thus, to profitability. This is becoming even more so in the Digital Age, especially as we undergo a cultural change in where and how we work in the knowledge industry, such as gig work and working from home for salaried workers.

There are debates over whether or not workers have to reply to emails from management after hours. Some jurisdictions have put in laws that after a certain time, employees do not have to do this. Some companies too, have done this.

Another shift in how humans think about and deal with time is how we project our “self” through social media and other digital channels. One can post something on Twitter or YouTube etc. and walk away, coming back hours or days later to an entire conversation that took place over various time zones and and days.

We’re also meshing time with one another in ways we’ve never done before. Especially when it comes to knowledge workers. In the productivity software market, calendar apps and scheduling services are popping up like tulips in spring. All promise that you will “win’ or “get back” your time. You’ll drop 15 hours, or however many, per week so you can do other time things.

Calendar apps and scheduling services are incredibly complex pieces of software. There is much chatter today about having an Artificial Intelligence assistant being able to manage our time for us. For AI, this is also an incredibly complex set of problems to solve for. Whoever figures this one out, could make a fortune.

While we can see a similar set of circumstances today around wages and social equality as we did over a hundred years ago, time is also becoming a factor, though we don’t often realise it. This is reflected in the growing discussions and movements around meditation, digital disconnection, mental health breaks and the deluge of productivity systems and methods through books, podcasts and videos.

Our perception of time, how we manage it, how much of our time we own versus other agencies such as work and government and our community commitments, is again shifting.

Time is something that weaves in and out of our cultures and societies. We mark time by the days and our personal lives, but we also mark time in our cultures through traditions (education, work, events) and rituals (marriage, burials, birthday celebrations.) These aspects of culture are also changing in the Digital Age. We will be re-thinking time more than we realise in the coming decades. This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just part of who we are as humans. Something we’ve always done and likely always will. Until perhaps, we invent time machines! Or maybe we already have? Time will tell.



Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious