Digital Materiality: Standardization 2

History has not always been chronological, but history has always been stories, moral parables which reinforce or justify institutions or behaviours. Oral history conveyed the authority of the “histor” or “wise one”, lessons of experience and privilege of lineage and traditional tribal role.  Only with written history we have the chance to compare conflicting accounts. But the instrumentality of history was not much criticized until industrial clock time created its universal portioning, providing an infinitely extensible grid both towards the future and back to the past. The uniform partitions of universal time broke history open to reveal sub-disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology.

There’s a clock at the heart of every digital device and it is not only there to tell you the time. All computer processes run on the clock, they must be scheduled and sequenced, and if the clock is wrong many processes will malfunction. The regular and universal subdivision of time is the basis for all the digital materials we consume.

But does time even exist without quantification? Certainly the ancients had a sort of cyclical time. Time which layered up on itself, time which was radically connected to astronomical observations, phases of the moon and the size of the sun. The cyclical path of the earth we are still bound to was reinterpreted in ancient notions of time, a time which swung.

Sundials were the first technology which provided an authoritative time scale to organize social production. The ordering of time burst open a new array of social effects, as expressed in this comic scene from Plautus.

The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours!
Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sundial To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions!
When I was a boy,
My belly was my only sundial, one more sure,
Truer, and more exact than any of them.
This dial told me when ’twas proper time
To go to dinner, when I had aught to eat;
But nowadays, why even when I have [plenty],
I can’t fall to unless the sun gives leave.
The town’s so full of these confounded dials
The greatest part of the inhabitants,
Shrunk up with hunger, crawl along the street [1]

Plautus’ parasite’s ordeal must have also been due to the fact that Roman sundial hours were not of standard duration, longer in the summer and shorter in the winter to ensure there were the same number of hours between sunrise and sunset. Though water clocks already existed, it was difficult to synchronize them at any scale, it was not until mechanical pendulum clocks began to appear in the middle ages that practical universal fully standardized arbitrary “isochronic” apportioning of time emerged.

“Abstract time is independent of external events and consists of uniform segments that do not change, but are fixed. Abstract time is uniform, constant, continuous, homogenous, invariable, commensurable and interchangeable. “  [2]

By the 15th c, cloth manufacturing had already come under the discipline of the clock. Clocks began appearing in towns squares and at the factory gates with large bells to strike the working hour. Since not only time but also the cloth and even the labour was standardized and homogenous, workers started to be paid according to time rather than product. This is fundamental to the growth of capitalism, where profit (surplus value) is derived by paying less for labour than the value of the product of that labour.

Marx describes this as extending the work day so the worker is compelled to continue working long past the time it would have already satisfied the productivity represented by its pay. The worker may have already earned its pay after 4 hours but must work for 8, the surplus value is recouped by the capitlist.

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him. [4] If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist. [5]“[3]

It was the speed of train transportation powered by steam locomotives invented in 1830 that brought about unified isochronous time on a grand scale. Until that time, though uniform mechanical time was ubiquitous, the time in any particular locality tended to vary for geographical reasons. The first railway accidents motivated the invention of a larger-scale synchronous time system and with it a non-geographical, abstract and uniform sense of time.

The introduction of universal and standard time is thus inseparable from the industrial revolution. The rail-bound logistics chains delivering people and materials to and from the large conurbations produced the centralized production models where standard currencies made possible a truly unprecedented versatility of mass production.

The inflexible arbitrary and abstract grid of universal time produced an enormous accelleration of scientific research, compelling universal standardization of weights and measures. This, combined with accellerated communication through rail-post allowed for scientific exchange on a previously unimaginable scale. Finance capital now had the required conditions to expand internationally with the assurance that regular profit statements could be issued and verified. Universal time, itself a product of advanced technological industry, laid the foundation for the reorganization of the world according to the industrial paradigm which maintains today.

Contemporary civilization is about regularity, repeatability, reproducibility, all this ensured through the universality of time rules. Regularizing essential social functions through institutions, today of law and government, produces a reliable foundation upon which to improvise inventively. Of course, this invention is coeval with the rules, and their reliable enforcement (or assumption they will be enforced). Civic freedoms such as freedom of expression are predicated on institutional control and ordering systems such as national and regional borders, and the police and military which physically manifest the laws there.

“The machines themselves, computational and otherwise, and the immense miraculous techno-industrial dispositif which reproduces them and their ability to function, operate on fundamentally unfree principles. The globalised logistics chains, the dickensian conditions in tungsten mines, the reliable functioning of the power grid, all requires unquestioning discipline. Who will contribute that discipline under what conditions? What is the trade-off? How can we elaborate the notion of freedom anew in a way that integrates acknowledgment of the ambient social requirement to subjugate ones own freedom for the benefit of all? Technologies re-imagined to serve global emancipation and redistribution of socially necessary discipline are urgently required.”[4]

Rules sublimate, and generates an anomalous counter-ideal. The counter-ideal and the ideal are coeval. Alphabets created correct pronounciations and accentuated exquisite divergences. Standardization of national grammars producted contemporary notions of nationality, which locally divergent pronounciations can exemplify, and which slang critiques. The rules of the state creates beautiful rebellion, just as the rules of football make the contortions of the athlete so compelling.

The ‘magic’ and ‘rebelliousness’ of the mobile device or portable computer is only made possible by the regimentation of production on a global scale through standardization. Global industrial standardization required the formation of standards councils like the ISO. Global standards are intrinsic colonialism into universal finance capital. If a country is considered to be badly served by its position in the production chain, the World Bank or other authority can change the standards by which poverty is measured and all is right again.

Turning history back on itself through the standardizing lens of chronology, not only conjures the illusion of progress and manifest destiny foretold, but all time-stamps all past acts as facts. Historical time grounds the myriad labour and production contracts, it grounds the financial earnings reports and loan repayment schedules. If an industrial product is a physical record of all the social relations that went into producing it, is must be possible to trace back the exact position, durations and proportions of participation that each party had in its production, thereby generating functional participation models for understanding the miraculous potentialities afforded by our technologies today, and generating new cultural forms to contextualize this historical consciousness with regard to the consumption of the current day. In principle, it should be possible to infiltrate history with the myriad facts of its everyday reproduction, and retroactively give those responsible their fair due.



ut illum di perdant, primus qui horas repperit,
quique adeo primus statuit hic solarium!
qui mihi conminuit misero articulatim diem.
Nam me puero venter erat solarium
multo omnium istorum optimum et verissimum:
ubi is te monebat, esses, nisi cum nihil erat.
Nunc etiam quod est, non estur, nisi soli libet;
itaque adeo iam oppletum oppidum est solariis,
maior pars populi aridi reptant fame.

The Boeotian Woman
Greek and Roman technology: a sourcebook : annotated translations … – Page 517 John William Humphrey, John Peter Oleson, Andrew Neil Sherwood – 1998 “Clocks 11.6 THE AFFLICTION OF SUNDIALS Plautus, The Boeotian Woman (Fragment v.21 Goetz) – Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 3.3.5

[2] Digital prosumption labour on social media in the context of the capitalist regime of time Christian Fuchs University of Westminster, UK p.5

[3]  Marx, K. Capital Ch. 10 “The Working-Day” especially
Sections 6 & 7

[4] Gottlieb, B.  Structural Challenges to Technological Emancipation

structural challenges to technological emancipation (1/3)

responsible extractives