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Time Is Money Is Work Is Virtue

“In addition to showing you the time, Apple Watch actually understands what time means to you,” Apple’s website declares about the company’s latest object of desire, which goes on sale next month. “It helps you be more productive and efficient. So you get more out of every moment.”

Apple’s assumption that people need to extract even more value out of each fleeting moment is a bit disturbing, but the device Apple is selling is doing the same thing watches have always done: helping people convert time into money, and altering consciousness in the process. The history of time, and how we have measured it, is inextricable from the history of labor.

In his seminal 1967 work “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” British historian E.P. Thompson explored how the Industrial Revolution changed the way people perceived time, and the way that time and money become one and the same (PDF).

Before the Industrial Revolution, time was a vague, approximate concept for most people, told by the crow of the rooster or the position of the sun. Most people, in Thompson’s Britain and elsewhere, worked as agrarians or skilled artisans. Their labor was task-oriented. Their understanding of time was related to how long it took to sow a field, mend a fishing net, boil a pot of rice, or build a piece of furniture.

But in the mid-18th century, the Industrial Revolution birthed the factory system, and with it, the concept of hourly waged labor. With this type of labor, workers were paid for the amount of time they worked, not how much or little they produced. They were also under the watchful eye of factory supervisors, as their time contributed to the profits of the factory and its owners.

The workforce for these factories was made up largely of former farmers and artisans who were pushed into unskilled labor by the changing economy. The idea of selling labor by the hour was without precedent for them. They were reluctant to accept the time discipline this new economy required. Workers often showed up late or didn’t show up at all. Many observed “Saint Monday,” a weekly tradition of Monday absenteeism. When workers did make it to the factory, they worked sporadically.

Thompson cited a code that Mr. Crowley, the owner of Crowley Iron Works, created to deal with his undisciplined workforce. Crowley wrote:

I having by sundry people working by the day been horribly cheated and paid for much more time than in good conscience I ought. Some have pretended a sort of right to loyter, thinking by their readiness and ability to do sufficient in less time than others. Others have been so foolish to think bare attendance without being imployed in business is sufficient. Others so impudent as to glorify in their villany and upbrade others for their diligence. I have thought meet to create an account of time by a Monitor, and do order and it is hereby ordered and declared from 5 to 8 and from 7 to 10 is fifteen hours, out of which take 1 ½ for breakfast, dinner, etc. There will then be thirteen hours and a half neat service.

In this new economy, the language of time became indistinguishable from the language of money, and thrift of both was considered a sign of virtue. Time, like money, could for the first time be saved and spent.

“If the sluggard hides his hands in his bosom, rather than applies them to work; if he spends his Time in Sauntring, impairs his Constitution by Laziness, and dulls his Spirit by Indolence,” then he will rightly stay poor, the Reverend J. Clayton wrote in his widely distributed 1755 pamphlet, Friendly Advice to the Poor.

Clayton also warned against “that slothful spending the Morning in Bed,” and against wakes, holidays, feasts and “gazing.” Such admonitions are echoed in varying capacities today, whether by corporations who require their workers to labor on holidays, or by individuals who privately pat themselves on the back for waking up early on the weekends.

The growing importance of time in the new industrial economy is precisely what made watches into status symbols. Thompson wrote:

The small instrument which regulated the new rhythms of industrial life was at the same time one of the more urgent of the new needs which industrial capitalism called forth to energize its advance. A clock or watch was not only useful; it conferred prestige upon its owner, and a man might be willing to stretch his resources to obtain one.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked that the Apple Watch will retail for between $349 and $17,000. Such a price will certainly stretch the resources of the average consumer, yes. But in addition to being fashionable, the Apple Watch promises to help its owners improve their time discipline, an exercise that is still suffused with notions of morality.

The ways we talk about time show that we still treat it as a resource capable of being saved, spent, wasted, and managed. Hourly wages remain the dominant model for labor compensation. Ever-present clocks on phones, computers and myriad other devices have only increased our ability to track every moment. Whole websites are devoted to “life hacks” that promise to help readers either save time or spend it more prudently.

The chief driving force behind consumer technology marketing is the promise of a more efficient life—a life where tasks can be completed in less and less time, making room for more tasks, more labor, more productivity, higher dividends. Electronic home appliances reduced the time women devoted to the uncompensated labor of housework, freeing them to enter the paid workforce in large numbers. The iPhone has allowed office workers to be available anywhere, at any time. The Apple Watch is both a logical next step and a throwback to time measurement’s industrial origins.