Do you ever feel like you’ve been wasting your time by watching Netflix instead of studying? We often perceive that our lives, and our time, are going at a faster pace than normal and that we are expected to complete tasks in an unattainably short amount of time. This feeling is often the result of an “accelerated culture” and can be linked to our desire to be productive.
Professor Sarah Sharma is an associate professor at UTM’s Institute of Communication, Culture and Technology program and the Director of the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology at U of T’s St George Campus. She argues against this concept of “accelerated culture” in her book, In the Meantime, published in 2014. In the book, she offers an in-depth explanation of the “recalibration of time,” an alternative way of thinking of this phenomenon.
When conducting her research for her book, Professor Sharma noted that there was a very generalized way of thinking about time and culture. General society and even literature emphasized the speeding up of everyday life. However, through her work, Professor Sharma realized that there is this expectation of our use of time that we’re always trying to attain.
“When I started looking around the social world I inhabit, I did not see this uniform speed. Instead, what I saw was that people and their sense of their bodies and lives would recalibrate to a dominant idea of time,” explains Professor Sharma.
Many of us feel like we are constantly running a race against the clock, trying to optimize our time by constructing the narrative that our time is precious. As such, we feel like time is going at a faster rate and we struggle to keep up. Professor Sharma found that, although we all feel this way, the way we experience it varies vastly.
“What I saw was that there was no universal experience of time that we’re all moving along in the same way, but rather that there was an order of time that was dominant, that people would be expected to recalibrate to,” says Professor Sharma. We all feel like there is this expectation of using our time to be productive, which often results in the feeling of not having enough time.
Professor Sharma conducted interviews with taxi drivers as part of her research. What she found was that taxi drivers, especially those working night shifts, felt that they were out of time. They felt like they were missing the real world due to the expectation that people run on a nine-to-five clock.
Professor Sharma also points out that the ways we experience time is entangled with and dependent upon how others experience time. For instance, people tend to think of “slowing down” as a treatment for this accelerated culture. However, is this really the case? “‘Slow down’ and ‘speed up’ are the same. Some people slow down because of the fast labour of others. So, slowing down implies someone else speeds up since our time is actually entangled,” Professor Sharma points out. In the end, the same normative temporal idea of time dominates.
In her book, Professor Sharma illustrates the relationship between the “recalibration of time” and wealth. “How people recalibrate their time and the opportunities they have to stay in time speak to where they exist on this temporal framework of whose time is more important, who is more important, and ultimately, who has power,” she observes. The expectation that other people recalibrate to a particular person’s time, rather than the other way around, speaks to that person’s privilege. Consider managers; they are able to employ labour and rely on them to recalibrate their time to what is expected of them. However, taxi-drivers, cleaners, and other personal and protective service workers do not have such a luxury.
Professor Sharma also notes that this unequal valuation of time is linked to contemporary capitalism. “This is how the social experience of time works under capitalism, where one person’s time is valued less than another, where the economic transactions or paying people for their labour hides this structure of politics of time,” explains Professor Sharma. “Capitalism depends upon an uneven relationship to time; it depends on people being drained of energy and resources.” In other words, capitalism often depends on devaluing the time of some and elevating that of others.
In her book, she alludes to yoga and meditation practices offered in the workplace. She notes that even then, the reason why these are available is ultimately to increase productivity within a corporation or institution. “It is articulated to the capitalist day, not to time for the self,” she says.
Ironically, during Covid-19, instead of feeling like we do not have enough time, we feel as though we have too much time at our hands. Yet, it does not feel like any good can come out of this valued resource. Instead, it feels like we are wasting our time. “People are feeling like they have too much time, but they feel this way in a world where there is not much time, so it still feels like a waste of time since we can’t fill in the gaps.” Professor Sharma also points out that this feeling can only stem from the realisation that our lives and time are finite.
Even during “Covid-time,” as Professor Sharma calls it, there is this expectation that we should still use our time wisely. When there were talks of establishing a curfew, she thought that this could cause issues relating to our perceptions of time. “Think of all the essential workers that don’t work from nine-to-five, those that don’t fit this framework, the idea to have a curfew already speaks to an imaginary view of when people are outside. Our world does not run this way, but in this dominant timeframe, there are still general conceptions,” she says.
Evidently, amid Covid-19, technology has become an even more omnipresent part of our lives. Technology has amplified our feeling of not having “enough time.” Professor Sharma points out how “it is interesting to think of why we have technological devices; they are almost always marketed as time maintenance products.” One of the main uses of our phones, for instance, is as a digital agenda to keep track of our days and lives to enhance our productivity.
She notes that if a technology is not marketed with time management functions, it will likely be viewed as useless. Professor Sharma thinks of technology not just as tools but also as “being a structure and force in our life.” Increasingly, technology has the capacity to shape the patterns and pace of our day-to-day life.
Undoubtedly, this dominant expectation of our efficient use of time can adversely affect mental health. On the surface, we do not see the struggles many may be facing. For instance, in a coffee shop, we see many people working on their laptops, but we do not see their thought processes. Specifically, Professor Sharma outlines that “what we don’t see are those minor types of recalibrations and how the expectation and demand of productivity might feel; we can’t see how tired they are [and] we can’t see their heart racing.”
Moreover, “what is hidden is the way that people’s lives are divested of meaning, divested of health, and divested of value.” This can easily make one feel unimportant, leading to a lack of self-confidence and other mental health issues.
Now, while we may believe we should somehow “slow down,” this is just another temporal order, which will not truly change this dominant idea of time. “If we were to change this structure of time, it is not through time changing, the answer lies in where we value human life,” explains Professor Sharma.
If we value health, then we should invest in that. At the moment, human value is rooted in productivity. To combat this, we need to think of what values we want to preach and develop technologies accordingly. Professor Sharma is currently conducting research on this for her forthcoming books Broken Machine Feminism and MsUnderstanding Media: A Feminist Medium is the Message, the latter to be released next year.
While Professor Sharma’s book In the Meantime was published in 2014, it is still incredibly relevant today. Ideas on productivity widely populate the internet. On YouTube, “Study Tubers” and “productivity channels” advertise a productive lifestyle through a focus on maximizing one’s time, which perpetuates the dominant idea that time dictates our lives. Although these approaches intend to help with time management, they contribute to our feeling of not having “enough time.”
Today, there is an increased demand for productivity. For some of us, taking some time for ourselves makes us feel guilty because we’re expected to constantly meet the demands for productivity. “It’s like we’re broken clocks, and we’re trying to fix our clock functions to tick properly within the social world,” says Professor Sharma, illustrating the phenomenon of our perceptions of time amid productivity expectations. Perhaps, the remedy is to simply create our own clocks and set our own expectations, instead of taking our time for granted and wishing for more of it.