Ever since reading Thoreau as a child, and his arguments against spending our time working to buy things we don't always need I've been interested in work, time and finding your own 'enough'. As a result it was a pleasure to talk with Samuel Alexander, founder of the Simplicity Institute about the how our conceptions and experiences of time play a role in moving towards less consumption based lifestyles. We talk here about everyday time use, but also ideas of progress, success and revaluing time.
Tamara DiMattina is a social entrepreneur who has been involved in a number of sustainability projects focusing on reducing consumption. We were intrigued by her project 'Buy Nothing New Month' with its clear objective of using time as a basis for reforming our relationship with 'stuff' and so conducted this interview with her about the project. We talk about time, fashion, creativity and whether or not sourcing things second hand might actually give you more time.
A further interview in our series on time and sustainable economies is now available. Katherine Gibson is one part of the authorial collective J.K. Gibson-Graham who have written a number of highly influential texts that have challenged the notion that there is no outside of capitalism. Instead in both The End of Capitalism (as We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy and A Postcapitalist Politics they emphasise the continuing diversity of economic forms, only some of which are capitalist. In this interview Gibson and I discuss the role of time in her work, including in J.K. Gibson-Graham's newest book with Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy Take Back the Economy. The importance of an 'ethics of time' in this work has been noted by Jeff Popke and there are nice resonances with his analysis here.
A column on the Sustaining Time project appears in the latest issue of the Transition Free Press. You can find us on page 16.
There's also a great article by Ugo Vallari on the Restart Project, which was one of the Sustaining Time case studies.
The Slow Movement often comes up when I talk to people about the Sustaining Time project. It’s a nice clear way of explaining why you might want to think about time as part of developing more sustainable forms of economics. Slow Food, for example, suggests that a sustainable food system would need to use a very different time to the one guiding industrial agriculture. And of course the slow movement hasn’t stopped there but has been moving into a whole range of different areas, including into research with ‘slow science’ and ‘slow scholarship’ gaining more attention.
So I have very much been looking forward to attending the Slow University II seminar, which was held in Durham last week, and included Carl Honoré and Chris Watson as speakers. It seemed like a great opportunity to explore the 'sustaining time of research'. But throughout the event, I found myself becoming increasingly uneasy about the way the Slow ethos was being deployed, particularly in Carl's presentation, and I wanted to explore some of the reasons here.
Carl Honoré has been writing about the Slow Movement for some time now and many people at the event had brought along their copy of In Praise of Slow. His presentation covered similar themes to this book, including his own epiphany over needing to slow down when he realised he was constantly rushing through story-time with his son. He also explored a number of examples of the way the slow ethos is showing up in the most unlikely of places including Google’s 20 percent time project, Ariana Huffington’s effort to redefine success with the Third Metric and Jeff Bezos instituting 30 minutes of silent reading before meetings at Amazon. If these businesses could recognise the benefits of Slow why not the university? And so Carl offered three suggestions for what proponent’s of a Slow University might want to focus on:
The question of who is Slow for? was asked in a couple of reflections on the first Slow University seminar and, I think, continued to be a prominent question at this event. It is a crucial question, because as Sarah Sharma argues in her recent book In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics “capital invests in certain temporalities - that is, capital caters to the clock that meters the life and lifestyle of some of its workers and consumers. The others are left to recalibrate themselves to serve the dominant temporality” (139). In each of the three large organisations mentioned above, for example, it is very clear that Slow is only for some. As Andrew Norman Wilson’s contribution to FACT’s Time & Motion exhibition uncovers, Google’s used of colour-coded badges determines how much access an employee has to self-directed work time and its time-saving infrastructure of free shuttle buses, meals, haircuts etc. Ariana Huffington has come under regular criticism for her business model based on the free labour of others, including masseurs. And even Carl noted the hellish conditions suffered by workers in Amazon’s ‘fulfilment centres’ (see also my post on the time of Amazon).
When I asked about these discrepancies in the implementation of the slow ethos, Carl suggested that the model could be seen as a kind of Trojan horse that has the ability to transform organisations from the inside once it has found an initial foothold. Perhaps he will be proven to be correct, but part of me wondered whether it might not be the other way around. Was neo-liberal capitalism instead turning slow to its own ends, adding slow-washing to its stable of methods that already included green and white-washing? The benefits of Slow were almost completely described in terms of its ability to make you a better worker. Far from being ‘the opposite of a productivity ninja’ as was suggested at the beginning of the seminar, 'slow' seemed to equal 'productive'. For example, Carl talked about the ‘delicious paradox of slow’ where working slow actually allowed you to work faster, producing more than someone caught in a harried, unfocused rush. Described in this way it didn’t seem that the ethos of Slow was operating as a critique of capitalist temporalities of production but might instead be one of its latest incarnations.
A core aim for the seminar was to find ways of supporting ‘ethical scholarship for the common good’ through recalibrating the time of the academy. But the focus on individualised experiences of speed and pressure, which seem to dominate the literature on the Slow ethos, suggest that it might have capitulated too easily to what Sharma describes as the “expectation that everyone must become an entrepreneur of time control” (138), where we invent and implement our individualised techniques of slowing down. Such an approach fails to deal with the uneven and unequal ways our time is intertwined with others and thus to confront the “new forms of vulnerability [that] are necessitated by the production of temporal novelties or resistances to speed” (150). Perhaps the core question then isn’t how can the university slow down, but how might it find ways of supporting ‘ethical times for the common good’.
Sharma, Sarah. In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.
The team has recently completed three reports that explore the work that's taken place so far in the project. Have a look at our publications page to download our Final Project Report, our Case Studies research report and our Archives research report.
It’s been a little while now since we’ve put up a new post on this project and I can’t help but feel the irony of not having enough time to devote to a project that is exploring the possibility of developing more sustainable relationships to time. But as perhaps many others have found, your projects never really forget about you. They keep calling to you, cutting through all your busyness and eventually reeling you back in. So to get back into the swing of things, I wanted to revisit some of the core questions that first inspired the project. Starting off with the most obvious perhaps: Why might a focus on time be important for understanding how to shift to more sustainable economies?
The perfect storm of multiple crises, including climate change, the peaking in supply of a whole range of key resources, as well as the astounding inequality fostered by current economic systems, have turned many towards developing and implementing alternative approaches. Challenging the philosophical basis of conventional economic theories has been an explicit aspect of this. As a result, the dominant paradigms of neoclassical economics are, at best, seen as being comprised of naive assumptions that fail to capture the complexity of human interdependencies on each other and on the environment.
All around us, the dominant stories of how people interact with each other and the kinds of incentives and rewards they respond to are shifting. Instead of competitive self-interested units, we are more generous, more co-operative and more complex than main-stream economists give us credit for. The structure and characteristics of the web woven between the human and non-human, between the biological, the mineral and the elemental are being questioned and described in new ways. Gift-based economies, the new commons, cooperation, abundance instead of scarcity and distributed networks are just a few examples.
How might time fit into this then? If time is just an objective flow that we measure, then it has about as much to do with economics as π (pi) does. It’s an unchangeable constant that we just need to live with. But what if this story about time is as much of a distortion as the story about ‘economic man’? What if time is also more complex, more interconnected and more dependent on social webs than we’re usually taught? That like the maps that tell us stories about space, our clocks are not simply telling us ‘the time’ but are telling stories about time that are cultural, political and partial? What if time is tied to our webs of relations in such a way that when these webs change so does time?
There is already research that suggests that broadly speaking different economic systems seem to be associated with different approaches to time. For example, pre-industrial societies with task oriented time, industrial capitalism with an intensification of clock-time and late capitalism with speed and acceleration. And if we look for further clues within alternative economics, new sustainable times come tantalisingly into view. Steady-state futures or degrowth displace stories of the progressive arrow of time. Movements like Slow Food, Permaculture or Transition are making deliberate attempts to redesign everyday life around slower tempos and complexity-based models of social change. This suggests that social change doesn’t only happen in time, but happens through changes to time itself.
The aim of this project then is try see if we can make some of these shifts in time more visible and more intelligible. But in going about this, we are making the following assumptions which make things more complicated:
2:00—4:30 p.m, 30 October 2013, The Florrie, 377 Mill St, Liverpool, Merseyside L8 4RF
How did people in the past deal with time? What was it like to measure the day by a sundial, rather than by a clock, or having it punctuated by prayers, rather than tea breaks? How did technologies of time, such as pocket watches, develop and how were they marketed? How did the future look a century ago? Has time contributed to community cohesion or conflict?
This free public event will explore the archives looking for evidence of time and how it was constructed, measured and experienced in the past. Focussing in particular on archives available in Liverpool, we will reveal some of the weird and wonderful resources available for historical and other research.
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Exploring the time of the new economics
If clock time helped build industrial capitalism & the idea of a speeded-up, networked time supports late capitalism, what kind of time would support alternative, sustainable economies?