Enslaved by timetables

Science and Religion

Enslaved by timetables

While all these Sapiens have grown increasingly impervious to the whims of nature, they have become ever more subject to the dictates of modern industry and government. The Industrial Revolution opened the way to a long line of experiments in social engineering and an even longer series of unpremeditated changes in daily life and human mentality. One example among many is the replacement of the rhythms of traditional agriculture with the uniform and precise schedule of industry.

Traditional agriculture depended on cycles of natural time and organic growth. Most societies were unable to make precise time measurements, nor were they terribly interested in doing so. The world went about its business without clocks and timetables, subject only to the movements of the sun and the growth cycles of plants. There was no uniform working day, and all routines changed drastically from season to season. People knew where the sun was, and watched anxiously for portents of the rainy season and harvest time, but they did not know the hour and hardly cared about the year. If a lost time traveler popped up in a medieval village and asked a passerby, “What year is this?” the villager would be as bewildered by the question as by the stranger’s ridiculous clothing.

In contrast to medieval peasants and shoemakers, modern industry cares little about the sun or the season. It sanctifies precision and uniformity. For example, in a medieval workshop each shoemaker made an entire shoe, from sole to buckle. If one shoemaker was late for work, it did not stall the others. However, in a modern footwear factory assembly line, every worker mans a machine that produces just a small part of a shoe, which is then passed on to the next machine. If the worker who operates machine no. 5 has overslept, it stalls all the other machines. In order to prevent such calamities, everybody must adhere to a precise timetable. Each worker arrives at work at exactly the same time. Everybody takes their lunch break together, whether they are hungry or not. Everybody goes home when a whistle announces that the shift is over—not when they have finished their project.

The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities. Shortly after factories imposed their timeframes on human behavior, schools too adopted precise timetables, followed by hospitals, government offices, and grocery stores. Even in places devoid of assembly lines and machines, the timetable became king. If the shift at the factory ends at 5 p.m., the local pub had better be open for business by 5:02.

A crucial link in the spreading timetable system was public transportation. If workers needed to start their shift by 8:00, the train or bus had to reach the factory gate by 07:55. A few minutes’ delay would lower production and perhaps even lead to the layoffs of the unfortunate latecomers. In 1784 a carriage service with a published schedule began operating in Britain. Its timetable specified only the hour of departure, not arrival. Back then, each British city and town had its own local time, which could differ from London time by up to half an hour. When it was 12:00 in London, it was perhaps 12:20 in Liverpool and 11:50 in Canterbury. Since there were no telephones, no radio or television, and no fast trains—who could know, and who cared?

The first commercial train service began operating between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830. Ten years later, the first train timetable was issued. The trains were much faster than the old carriages, so the quirky differences in local hours became a severe nuisance. In 1847, British train companies put their heads together and agreed that henceforth all train timetables would be calibrated to Greenwich Observatory time, rather than the local times of Liverpool, Manchester, or Glasgow. More and more institutions followed the lead of the train companies. Finally, in 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich. For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.

This modest beginning spawned a global network of timetables, synchronized down to the tiniest fractions of a second. When the broadcast media—first radio, then television—made their debut, they entered a world of timetables and became its main enforcers and evangelists. Among the first things radio stations broadcasted were time signals, beeps that enabled far-flung settlements and ships at sea to set their clocks. Later, radio stations adopted the custom of broadcasting the news every hour. Nowadays, the first item of every news broadcast—more important even than the outbreak of war—is the time. During World War II, BBC News was broadcasted to Nazi occupied Europe. Each news program opened with a live broadcast of Big Ben tolling the hour—the magical sound of freedom. Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcasted ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe. When the British secret service discovered this, they replaced the live broadcast with a set recording of the famous clock.

In order to run the timetable network, cheap but precise portable clocks became ubiquitous. In Assyrian, Sassanid or Inca cities there might have been at most a few sundials. In European medieval cities there was usually a single clock—a giant machine mounted on top of a high tower in the town square. These tower clocks were notoriously inaccurate, but since there were no other clocks in town to contradict them, it hardly made any difference. Today, a single affluent family generally has more timepieces at home than an entire medieval country. You can tell the time by looking at your wrist watch, glancing at your Android, peering at the alarm clock by your bed, gazing at the clock on the kitchen wall, staring at the microwave, catching a glimpse of the TV or DVD, or taking in the taskbar on your computer out of the corner of your eye. You need to make a conscious effort not to know what time it is.

The typical person consults these clocks several dozen times a day, because almost everything we do has to be done on time. An alarm clock wakes us up at 7 a.m., we heat our frozen bagel for exactly 50 seconds in the microwave, brush our teeth for 3 minutes until the electric toothbrush beeps, catch the 7:40 train to work, run on the treadmill at the gym until the beeper announces that half an hour is over, sit down in front of the TV at 7 p.m. to watch our favorite show, get interrupted at preordained moments by commercials that cost $1,000 per second, and eventually unload all our angst on a therapist who restricts our prattle to the now standard 50-minute therapy hour.


Excerpt from chapter 18, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind