The great circadian disruption through which we have lived since the invention of the electric light is bad for our physical and mental health.

mental health

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Burmese monks know that it is time to get up when it is light enough to see the veins in their hands. Muslims base their getting up on the passage in the Quran that defines daybreak as the time when it is possible to distinguish between a dark and a light thread. In parts of Madagascar, questions about how long something takes might receive the answer ‘the time of rice-cooking’ (about half an hour) or ‘the frying of a locust’ (a quick moment).

In a world without clocks, it is natural cues or events that give some sense of time. Each day sees the sun and moon rise and set. The tides rise and fall. Seasons come and go, and return again. Planets move across the sky and come back to their starting point. It is a world of endless cycles but essentially changeless.

This organic relationship to time goes hand in hand with a far more relaxed approach to punctuality and appointments. It is more important to see a family friend than to keep an appointment or to make it to work. The prioritisation of affiliation or relationships is an important characteristic of event-time societies. Time walks in these societies, while in the United States and Britain it either runs or it flies.

But increasingly, in most of the world, from the moment we wake, we live our day by the clock. In Technics and Civilization (1934), the US sociologist Lewis Mumford described the mechanical clock rather than the steam engine as ‘the key machine’ of the modern world. The changes it brought were revolutionary. In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), David Landes, the great historian of clocks, wrote about how clock-time brought order and control:

The very notion of productivity is the by-product of the clock: once one can relate performance to uniform time units, work is never the same. One moves from the task-oriented time consciousness of the peasant (one job after another, as time and light permit) and the time-filling busyness of the domestic servant (always something to do) to an effort to maximise product per unit of time (time is money).

Until the Industrial Revolution, ‘jobs’ as we know them barely existed. People did whatever needed to be done, and then got on with something else. In the transition from the biblical task-orientation of event time to contemporary clock time, workers were turned into disciplined industrial labourers through an Industrial Revolution that used the clock to organise factory work. Instead of being paid for the task, workers began to be paid for their time. The clock became a measure not only of time but also of money, which put a premium on accuracy.

Many people now feel they are short of time, and that they have less time available than previous generations. We are torn between the attractions of event time and the efficiency of clock time. And in many societies we have difficulties in finding enough of either. For full-time employed mothers, the second shift starts as soon as they come home, and can involve up to eight different tasks a day: cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and so on. Men who do housework usually manage two tasks at most. Time-sickness, the feeling of being harried and hurried continually, is the disease of the age. Lack of time has become a common complaint. For many of us, there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things we want.

There are two easy ways to solve the problem, and one harder way. First, we could stop watching television. This would free up three to four hours a day for most of us. Second, we could stop buying so many goods, and more especially services. This would save some time. We would not need shops opening round the clock. Third, if we purchased less, we would not need to earn as much and so could work fewer hours. We could do all these things, but there is about the same chance of that happening as there is of pigs flying.

So how do we find the time we feel we need? Time is not a commodity that can be created. What we are doing with the 24-hour society is what we always do when we come up against a scarce resource – we find a new supply. In Night as a Frontier (1987), the US sociologist Murray Melbin made an analogy between the shortage of land in the Old West and the shortage of time now. When time is the scarce resource, then the night is the source of supply. So in a 24-hour society we try to colonise the night – just as the Egyptian pharaoh did, and the Greek historian Herodotus described it. When told by a soothsayer that he would have only six years to live, the pharaoh promptly ordered that fires be lit in his palace every evening so that night would be turned into day, and his six years became 12.

When time is scarce, then the night is our resource. By colonising the night, we don’t create time but we do start to use the available time more effectively, freeing ourselves from the coiled grip of the time squeeze.

The 24-hour society is more than simply extending shop-opening hours and all-night mass transit. It is about restructuring the temporal order. Eventually, it will lead to a different construction of daily activities, freeing people from the restraints and deadlines imposed today by rigid adherence to clock time. We will move into a more flexible and free-wheeling approach, coordinating activities on the fly.

There are some who would go much further than the 24-hour society, and completely rethink the use of time. One half-serious suggestion is that we should switch to 28-hour days. Monday would be eliminated, on the basis that everyone hates Mondays. The working week would then be four 10-hour shifts with a 56-hour weekend. Thursday might be a problem, being dark most of the day, but, as the originator of the idea has suggested, Thursdays could be used for roadworks.

But there is a price to pay in terms of our biology. Our bodies function in accord with a natural rhythm that comes from the Earth rotating on its axis once every 24 hours – give or take a few minutes. We aren’t made to live our lives in artificial light, waking to an alarm clock and sleeping to the blue light from a smartphone.

Nearly every living thing on the planet, including us, generates internal circadian rhythms that are synchronised to the solar cycle. These rhythms of life both enable us to optimise physiology and behaviour in advance of the varied demands of the day/night cycle, and stop everything within us happening at the same time, ensuring that biological processes occur in the appropriate sequence.

The great circadian disruption through which we have lived since the invention of the electric light is bad for our physical and mental health. The 24-hour society will present further risks. Exactly what, though, should be the subject of public debate – preferably after a good night’s sleep.
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Leon Kreitzman

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.