Note: A version of this post appeared on Anthropology in Practice in 2010.
It's New Year's Eve in the United States, and in New York City tourists and residents are getting ready for the countdown in Times Square that marks the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. This widely televised event represents a massive surge of egocentrism—with all eyes on the Times Square ball, one could easily believe the new year begins and ends with the events in New York City, but that ignores that the year has already commenced in placed like China, India, the UK, and midnight has yet to strike in the western time zones. So whose time are we celebrating at midnight? How does local time factor into this experience?
Time zones have set standards in keeping with longitudinal boundaries so that we share a clock experience that is often managed by an urban center. These standards of time overlook local, social definitions of time. Though these local definitions persist, they are not generally the norm adhered to when individuals interact both across and within time.
Real world examples of temporal structuring reflect cultural and political transactions of power. For example, in examining the work of missionaries among the Bosavi people, Schieffelin (2002) determines that missionaries were in part responsible for changing the associations of time held by the Bosavi. Language in a 1961 brochure for the Unevangelized Fields Mission (UFM) instructed missionaries looking to work with the Bosavi people that, "These untouched Highlanders are a thousand years behind the times, therefore, it is imperative that their missionaries [as it were], go back behind the times with them" (S5). Missionaries in Papua New Guinea took this message to heart: they went back in time [to the reference of time that the Bosavi lived in and recognized] to bring them into the missionaries' temporal frame, which was structured around the belief that the end of days was imminent. To change the Bosavi understanding of time, the missionaries changed the meaning of time:
The missionaries made their mission station a busy place. Getting everything done was a moral issue; everything took time, and there was never enough time. As dictated by Scripture, there was urgency about converting the local population, and the mission station was the center from which everything radiated. Its schedules, clocks, calendars, and programs organized the mission staff, which included Christian Papuans and interested Bosavi people. A clanging bell or shell trumpet provided sonic marking of church services and clinic calls. For the missionaries, the frequently scheduled shortwave radio contacts throughout the day, the "scheds," provided critical technology, one that enabled them to exchange information about their mission activities, planes, and people throughout Papua New Guinea, connecting them to a larger Christian community. For the local people, these voices and the material consequences of contact with them gave the missionaries enormous power (Schieffelin 2002: S7).
The mission established temporal dichotomies (e.g., before/now, now/later) aligned with the dualities central to Christianity (e.g., light/dark, saved/unsaved) so that traditional Bosavi practices, including healing practices, and ways of talking, socializing, and exchange, were relegated to the "before" period, prior to the coming of the missionaries and the means of salvation in the "later," and were ultimately suppressed. Newly missionized Christians were eager to carry messages of "later." Missionary-appointed Kalulis (individuals from a district of Bosavi) who led church modified Bosavi counting words and incorporated them into sermons, which helped link the temporal system to Christianity for the Bosavi.
The Bosavi did not particularly account for specific events or mark time in a precise way before the missionaries imposed their system of time-keeping. However, as the missionaries existed in a position of power, those who associated with the missionaries also attained a position of power. New words referencing time infiltrated the language with support from Kaluli Christian leaders, who adopted temporal frames from the missionaries and incorporated these ideas into sermons. In this way, the missionaries' time spread. Missionized Christians executed the mandates, shaping the structure of the village activities. This granted the new Christians power, and they used this model to shape new Christian communities.
This example can help us think about time in the digital realm, where a similar thing has happened: In the 19th century, Time was standardized by the Royal Greenwich Observatory (GMT) to assist in keeping the British railroads on track. The world adopted this means of measuring time in much the same way the Bosavi adopted the missionaries' time: to avoid being "behind the times," to be recognized not as an obsolete "before," but as present in the "later." When we shifted to the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) standard in the 1970s, a political and cultural orientation occurred that moved us away from "local, social time." This time still exists, however, the time against which activity is judged is the time of the more dominant space.
So though we may interact on what appears to be our own temporal terms, we are actually engaging each other in a time that has been predetermined for us—the time of the dominant space, which in this can be described generally as Western-urban orientations. Smaller locales in the same time zone must orient themselves according to an urban center, which in turn is positioned against the UTC, even while their local social Time remains. Local social times are also subsumed by urban times online. The user graphs for online games may reveal some insight into these patterns: there are certain times when the boards are flooded by players from particular regions, which correspond to and align with certain patterns of behavior (i.e., after "dinner time"). So regardless of social time mandates, if the best gamers are gathering according to an urban temporal orientation, then individuals who want to participate in this relationship will be present at during that time.
If we are operating in a time that has been predetermined for us in the digital space as a result of power relationships, is time still truly significant? Does this render time as something that is static? We have a frame of reference against which to gauge a duration of experience (i.e., whether it's taking too long for someone to respond to an email), but how many of you check time stamps on when they are available? If we've adopted the dominant standard—can't imposed Krystal Time, after all—does time matter?
Schieffelin, B. (2002). Marking Time: The Dichotomizing Discourse of Multiple Temporalities Current Anthropology, 43 (S4) DOI: 10.1086/341107
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