We need to start unravelling time.
We don’t have the same hours in a day.
Amidst the urgency of our day-to-day lives, moments to sit down and consider what time really means to us are rare. We’re even less likely to explore what time means for others. But if we opened our minds to new interpretations of time - we could radically reimagine the structures of our societies and the relationships we have with the people around us.
As a campaigner and organiser, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we move people to reflect and act. As our worlds become more and more digital - we are overloaded with information and dwindling time to properly process and reflect. Our relationship to history and the future is changing. But in order to properly understand the relationship between information, attention and time - I have to explore time itself.
Time is affected by all manner of factors related to the human experience. By denying or dismissing this, we’re not using a crucial tool that can support us to understand each other better. Why do some moments, causes or issues feel urgent to some of us - but not others? Why do some see granting flexibility as love, and others see losing track of time as anything but?
How does time change depending on who you are? And how does this change over the course of your lifetime? I’ve spent some time reflecting on this, not just in search of answers but in search of more questions. What follows is a few of the factors and perspectives that have been unearthed on this journey so far, and I invite you to find time-related questions to spark your own. By better understanding what time is to each of us, we take steps closer to answering questions we have not only about the present, but the past, future, and beyond.
Time is a social construct
Time, and all of the mechanics by which we try to measure it, are social constructs.
One way that groups, cultures and people can be defined as guided by either polychronic or monochronic principles. Monochronic understanding of time is linear, sequential and analogue: time is a structure that we adhere to, a limited resource we have to work around. You're more likely to stick to plans and avoid interruptions - if you bump into an old friend whilst on the way to somewhere, you're less likely to stop and chat, let alone go for a coffee. Polychronic understanding of time, however, is concurrent, multifaceted and digital. It’s malleable, we can bend it and multitask with it. You’re more open to interruptions, and often distractions.
A simple difference like seeing time as linear or concurrent can result in communication breakdowns - conflict can stem from the fact that this huge contrast is concealed by a belief that time is universal, as well as our values and relationship to it. Add to this the differing ways that history is documented and the future is imagined across the world - it seems clear that time is anything but universal. So where did this homogenising approach to time come from - and what does unpicking that tell us?
The branding of time as universal is hugely intertwined with uniform time. Uniform time, which many are so accustomed to today, comes from the hunger of European empires to further their colonial expansions and exploits. This push for standardised time took the best part of a century - partly because many colonised people saw it for the colonial tool it was, and engaged in acts of resistance. For them, the idea that time could be a uniform experience was false.
Efforts exploring how we can decolonise time invite us to reflect on the impacts of this colonial project and carve out spaces that seek to mitigate them. As Larissa Crawford, founder of Future Ancestors, asks:
“What is the relationship between your cultural understanding of time and your health?
Do we tangibly consider diverse cultural understandings of time in our work, events, and personal space? How do/can we?
What does our relationship to time look like in decolonized spaces, systems and societies?”
Time is an access need that capitalism sweeps under the rug
Often neurodivergent people perceive time differently. Our brains may literally be wired in a way that means we go through the world - and time and space - in ways society doesn't expect. This can affect everything from our relationship to deadlines and routines, to relating to the past or future.
It can be humiliating to struggle with a task as a result of the fact that you're experiencing the world differently. How do you tell this to a friend or peer? Finding a definition of dyspraxia that described it as finding it ‘difficult to place myself within time and space’ helped me to understand why these challenges existed for me in the first place. Many disability communities account for this already - building spaces accessible for all experiences and perceptions of time. But the welcoming of this breadth of perception falls short where neurodiversity is poorly understood.
San Francisco-based disability rights activist Alice Wong discusses the shift from having family as caregivers to relying on external carers whilst at college - what she describes is a clear example of how existing in a world that is not designed to be accessible for you disrupts your relationship with time:
“Wait, when you say organized in your brain—what do you mean? What are the things that you’re having to make sure are sorted?”
“Yeah, so always anticipating what’s next. Anticipating what could do wrong. You know somebody—what if somebody drops me? What if somebody doesn’t want to do something the way I ask them to? You know all the different kinds of variables but also being mindful again that—how much time do I have left?”
Time is an access need that capitalism sweeps under the rug – every time a scheduled break is skipped during a meeting or event, every person on Universal Credit that lives under the threat of sanctions if they’re minutes late to a Job Centre appointment. As writer and activist Joshua Virasami states in How to Change It:
“Every time we think that people can ‘make do’, on any level, we signal to Disabled people, and people with other kinds of access needs, that our groups aren’t for them.”
Time, health and trauma
Beyond never-ending national lockdowns, postponed work and the slowing of one of the world’s fastest cities - or as writer Mary Retta puts it, time not existing ‘because we live on the internet’ - this last year for me has been a deep personal reckoning with my own relationship to time. I am counting the days leading up to the anniversary of my first day experiencing symptoms from COVID-19, a condition from which I have yet to fully recover.
When faced with limitations related to time and urgency, I am energised by attempting to mould time to my will. Time felt both limited and infinite - one day, I would have no more of it, and so I had to squeeze what I could out of every moment. I sought to disrupt conventional routines and mainstream perception of how to spend my free time - driven partially by youthful exuberance and the allure of living in a bustling city, but definitely silently influenced by my own financial precarity. I defined myself by what felt like an innate motivation to fill my time with things that kept me excited, curious and feeling alive.
Being so ill that I needed to scrap these guiding principles felt like the identity crisis that I could have never foreseen. The moments when I have tried to grasp at the way I used to live, experience time with the speed I yearn for, are the moments that lead to crashes in my health and an inability to function. My relationship to time has become measured and strained. I now spend my day-to-day delicately examining and considering it.
“Although chronic illnesses have different physiological, biological, and pathological properties, they share a common thread—time. Severe chronic illnesses induce different temporal rhythms and different relationships to time than are experienced by the healthy person, or even the person with acute illness.”
Chronic illnesses are a clear time disruptor. They ‘induce new relationships’ to time - my own experience so far being a relatively new demonstration of this. I can already feel my relationships to people around me changing as my own relationship to time shifts. How can I communicate how much has shifted for me? What if I get left behind? Who else is experiencing similar shifts - for whatever reason they may occur? How can we accommodate time disruptors of all causes that each of us may experience in our lifetimes?
Time is the tool of an oppressive society for those that find themselves short of it. Time is money but we don’t all have the same hours in a day.
People on zero hours contracts and in precarious work don’t have the same hours as people in permanent, well-paid full-time work. Disabled people don’t have the same hours in the day as those an ableist world is designed for. Chronically ill people don’t have the same hours in a day. Parents and carers don’t have the same hours in a day. Trans people taking on extra work to pay for gender-affirming healthcare don’t have the same hours in a day. If you take a moment to look at the injustices around you (and those beyond), you’ll see that this list could go on indefinitely.
The sooner we each take it upon ourselves to understand how this inequity relates to our day-to-day lives, the people we interact with and the expectations we have, the better. What could we learn from centering this disparity and how could we design and create to tackle this?
Where do we go from here?
I am currently holding two imagined futures: one where I recover and I speed up with the world around me as restrictions lift, one where the plateauing of my health continues - and I juggle managing my new normal as the world speeds up around me.
Regardless of which of these futures becomes my reality - part of what I hope will keep me grounded is a peer-group dedicated to exploring time from different perspectives. I’m inviting participants to bring their own question related to the past, present, future - or time itself. Over 4.5 months, together, we will grow, learn and develop together in the search for answers. And that is where the beauty lies - time is both one of the most personal concepts we have and a cornerstone of human existence. Creating space together to delve into questions that come from reckoning with it ensures we can better find answers - or at least, a sense of calm.
All the systems and spaces we build need to accommodate and encourage the exploration of what time means to each of us. Understanding time as something we experience personally and collectively, not universally, is key to creating a more sustainable, accessible and just future. If we saw time for what it actually is: a constellation of understandings of the human experience - with no two the same - the space we would have for empathy, compassion and understanding would be boundless.