How Your WHERE Governs Your WHEN
There is a common motivational phrase that often goes something like We All Have the Same 24 Hours in a Day — it’s up to you what you do with them. While the intent of the modern day proverb and meme is a well meaning endeavour to break inertia and instigate action, the reality that all 24 hours are the same is (like most aspects of time and temporality) highly debatable.
To begin with the notion of ‘temporal equality’ is somewhat flawed, for example an individual residing in a urban city of the developed world will have near instant access to transport, information, energy, water, food, entertainment and social connections. Access to the same attributes for an individual in a rural village of the developing world, by contrast, would not share anything near to the same instant access. What takes the former minutes or seconds to procure might take the later hours, days, months or even years. There is simply no natural rule of equality when it comes to time.
The next notion we might challenge regarding temporal equality is that although every human on planet earth is subject to the same quantitive attribute of 24 hours in a day (defined by a full rotation of the earth on its axis in relation to the sun), the qualitative attributes of those 24 hours vary vastly. This is due to a range of geographical, sociological and psychological factors outlined and illustrated below (all HEAVILY referenced from exactlywhatistime.com).
And finally we should remain critical of the presupposition that strictly scheduled and managed time coupled with ever accelerating progress is ‘preferable’ to more informal, relaxed and natural observations of time.
Geo-Psyco-Socio Wheres & Whens ;
Cool Climates vs Hot Climates
Perhaps unsurprisingly, life tends to be slower in hotter places, and there is a strong correlation between the climate (as measured by average maximum temperatures) and how slow the tempo of life is. This could result from a general lack of energy in the debilitating heat, or just the fact that people in warmer climates simply take the time to enjoy life. Attitudes towards time in warmer Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries are very different from that in time-conscious cooler cultures like North America and Northern Europe. *
Future Orientated vs Past Orientated
Future-orientated cultures tend to run their lives by the clock. The United States is one of the fastest paced countries in the world, perhaps partly due to the fact that many Americans are always looking to the future, striving for the “American Dream”. It is a culture that values busy-ness, which equates a hectic and frenzied life-style with success, status and importance. Japan is also an extremely time-conscious culture, although the Japanese probably lay more emphasis on time management and efficient lifestyles than Americans, and consequently may feel less constantly rushed and frustrated. Past-orientated cultures, like that of India, for example, are much more laid back in the way they look at time. Unlike in Japan, it is not unusual for trains in India to be several hours, or even a full day, late, without creating undue stress and turmoil. It is possible that such cultures, with thousands of years of history behind them, have such a long point of view that time at the scale of minutes, or even hours, becomes insignificant and inconsequential.*
Developed Economies vs Developing Economies
Social psychologist Robert Levine has devoted much time to analysing how different countries and different cultures deal with time. Some of his findings are perhaps unsurprising. For example, the fastest people were found in the wealthier North American, Northern European and industrialised Asian nations like Japan; the slowest were in non-industrialised and third-world countries, particularly those in South and Central America and the Middle East. The United States often vies with Japan for the fastest pace, although Switzerland is also a top contender, mainly because of the accuracy of its clocks. According to Levine, the number one determinant of a country’s tempo is economics: the economic health of the country as a whole, the average income earned by the average citizen, and how well-fed they are. Places with active economies put greater value on time, and places that value time are more likely to have active economies, in a mutually reinforcing cycle. Consequently, in almost all cases, the wealthier the society, the faster it tends to move.*
Industrialised Cultures vs Pre-industrialised Cultures
Many pre-industrialised agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies have very different attitudes to time and work than the industrialised West. The Hopi tribe of Arizona, USA, as well as some other Native American tribes, have a language that lacks verb tenses, and their language avoids all linear constructions in time. The closest the Hopi language comes to a sense of time are one word meaning “sooner” and another meaning “later”. The Hopi appear to have little or no sense of linear time as most of the industrialised Western world knows it, and it comes as no surprise to learn that their religious beliefs include a cyclic view of time, similar to ancient Hindu and Buddhist belief in the “wheel of time”.*
Dense Population vs Sparse Population
After economic well-being and industrialisation, the single strongest predictor of differences in tempo is population size. The strict clock time of the modern world is imposed most strongly in large, vibrant cities. People in bigger cities move faster than their counterparts in smaller towns and rural areas. In one study of the behaviour of children in supermarkets and stores, the average city child was shown to walk nearly twice as fast as their small-town equivalents, and spent a third of the time interacting with clerks and other shoppers, and significantly less time physically touching objects in the store. Other studies have found an almost perfect correlation between population size and walking speed.*
Individualism Orientated vs Collectivism Orientated
It is also apparent that a culture’s basic value system is also reflected in its norms about tempo. For example, individualistic cultures tend to move faster than those that emphasise collectivism. In the United States, a classic individualistic culture, people tend to move fast and time is at a premium. On the other hand, in traditional Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Tibet and Nepal, where typically many people share large homes with their extended families, the pace is slow. Individualistic cultures tend to focus on achievement, which usually leads to a “time-is-money” mindset in which there is an urgency to make every moment count. In cultures where social relationships take precedence, however, there is a much more relaxed attitude toward time.*
Monochronic vs Polychronic
Chronemics is the study of the use of time, and the way that time is perceived and valued by individuals and cultures, particularly as regards non-verbal communication. These time perceptions include things like punctuality, willingness to wait, approaches to face-to-face interactions, and reactions to time pressure.*
Monochronic — where things are typically done one at a time, where time is segmented into precise, small units, and where time is scheduled, arranged and managed. In such a culture, time is viewed as a tangible commodity than can be spent, saved or wasted, and a paramount value is placed on regimented schedules, tasks and “getting the job done”. This perception of time is probably rooted in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Century, and the archetypal examples are the United States, Germany and Switzerland, to which could be added Britain, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and the Scandinavian countries. *
Polychronic — where several things can be done at once, and a more fluid approach is taken to scheduling time. Such cultures tend to be less focused on the precise accounting of each and every moment, and much more steeped in tradition and relationships rather than in tasks. Polychronic cultures have a much less formal perception of time, and are not ruled by precise calendars and schedules. The arbitrary divisions of clock time and calendars have less importance to them than the cycle of the seasons, the invariant pattern of rural and community life, and the calendar of religious festivities. Many Latin American, African, Asian and Arab cultures fall into this category, especially countries like Mexico, Pakistan, India, rural China, the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.*
* Ref: exactlywhatistime.com
How Your WHEN Might Influence Your WHERE
If it is observable that our where might govern our when, then might the inverse tendency be possible? Could how we view and value time influence how we occupy time?
This is one of the key question I am currently exploring with Professor Matthew Soteriou of King’s College London’s Department of Philosophy. By prototyping a series of temporal tools and iterating the universal clock face of time as we know it we hope to demonstrate that individuals might be able to actively navigate our individual and collective values of time beyond the monotony of the standard clock/watch face.
By example could such temporal tools help those residing within monochronic cultures take onboard more polychronic tendencies? Or those in population dense and individualism orientated localities align with the slower collective progression of natural cycles? Those with a future orientation bias temporarily take a self-reflective past orientation view of time? Those in cooler faster climates appreciate the slower pace of hotter climates through the greater appreciation of the relaxed temporal fluency found in apparent solar time? Or those governed by the numerical value of time emancipate themselves through observing non-numerical values of time?
The above text represents ‘thought in progress’ associated with the project sense of time, a new collaboration between King’s College London’s Department of Philosophy and artist Ted Hunt, brokered and supported by the Cultural Institute at King’s in partnership with Somerset House Studios.