My preschool son is obsessed with time right now. Every action invites a “where will the big hand and the little hand be on the clock when we do this” question. His obsession with actual hands on a clock may be the product of the newness of the concept, doing things at specific times that are set by a clock. Most adults think nothing of waking at a particular hour and going to work or school based on what a time tells us, but to my son, he’s alway operated on light and dark and what his parents tell him to do.
Curiously, my son’s fascination with time may be reflective of a larger issue: how we experience time differently based on our culture. Jane Pilcher, a British sociologist, noted in this post that how we experience time is largely based on shared conventions. If everyone else is talking about minutes and seconds, you do too. If everyone else is talking about suns and moons, then you think about time that way.
As a historian I wonder what it must’ve been like people of the industrial age who moved from farm time (sun up, sun down) to factory time (work your shift, go home). Time-keeping devices had been getting smaller and more affordable since the 16th century, when the first watch was produced. If you click through, you’ll see the watch was accurate to within a half hour.
Even as technology advanced during industrialization thought, it was culture that shaped how people understood time. Being late to the farm field meant not getting the work done to feed your family. Tardiness in factory work resulted in less pay or firing, so the results could be similar. Still, a farmer that sleeps in is self-regulating her time and responsible only to herself. A factory worker must answer to a boss.
Perhaps most fascinating to me as a historian and dad is the rise of “smart watches.” In a class of 45 students around 8-10 will be wearing actual watches as most students prefer to use the phones. New watches promise to track activity or relay messages from phones, potentially making humans more connected with technology in their everyday affairs. The buzzing of incoming texts, tweets, and emails combined with pop-up reminders to buy bread on the way home and change the filter in your car could seem just as culturally dissonant to us as stopping work at a set time was to early industrial factory workers.