Clocks are everywhere because our modern economy needs to know the time. Our “regular measurement of time and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of the routine of the monastery,” writes Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization. It was long ago that Pope Sabinianus (d. 606) ordered bells to be rung seven times per day to alert the faithful to the liturgy of the hours.
As an urban economy eventually emerged, merchants demanded more precision. A public mechanical clock appeared in Belgium in 1188; more places followed in the 1200s. By 1345 the measurement of 60 minutes to an hour and 24 hours to a day became standard. By 1370 Paris had a well-designed modern clock suitable for urban life. In the 1600s many families in Holland and England acquired a mechanical clock for their homes.
Yet the monasteries came first, according to Mumford. They “helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” As the years went by, however, some began to think that a “completely timed and scheduled and regulated” machine civilization “does not necessarily guarantee maximum efficiency,” as Mumford concludes. Sticking to the clock is not best for human development.
Meghan O’Gieblyn, drawing upon Mumford, provides a reflection on routine for Harper’s. Have people become machines, she asks? Is the routine imposed by our economy dehumanizing? Or “is it possible in our age of advanced technology to recall the spiritual dimension of repetition”? Does a spiritual motivation lurk “in the gears of modern routine”?
High-tech and advanced automation enhance work and life, say its cheerleaders. Computers and robots free us to set aside drudgery and bring forth our agility, flexibility, creativity, and spontaneity. However, O’Gieblyn writes, “the rhetoric of flexibility . . . despite its existential promise to make us more human, frequently undergirds policies that make the lives of workers more precarious.” For example, online retail and the apps on our mobile device decrease variety by conditioning our choice of products and services.
The goal cannot be the elimination of clocks. Covid-19 previews an unstructured existence within a total computer economy, a total gig economy, and a total do-it-yourself, round-the-clock life. What is the result of decreased regimentation? Maybe too many naps. Excessive internet surfing. Heightened anxiety about childcare and schooling. Unpredictable and/or lower wages. Spiritual exhaustion.
Humane work and a fuller life is not liberation from repetition. The old analysis still applies: Despite talk about teamwork and participation, workers are estranged from one another, from the process and outcome of their labor, and eventually from themselves. That’s because too few workers—from warehouse workers to floor managers to computer programmers to middle executives—are sufficiently taught the process and the product of their labor. There just isn’t enough time to do so, we’ve assumed.
As for O’Gieblyn, she believes “there is [still] something transcendent in the pleasures of repetition.” Tranquility is not simply the absence of structure. She cites St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle in saying that a full life requires habits aimed toward the common good. A good habit is not slavery; it is a form of grace. And freedom, O’Gieblyn concludes, is not “eliminating necessity from our daily lives.” Freedom is “the ability to consistently choose the good.” ♦
William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work (sign up for a free subscription here!), and the author of Monday Eucharist, available from the National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7). For more from Meghan O’Gieblyn, he recommends seeking out God, Human, Animal, Machine (Knopf Doubleday, 2021).