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Clocks, Calendars, and Schedules

David M. Henkin

In the ever-changing world of white-collar labor, it is the small touches that signal dystopia. Much of the enduring resonance of Mike Judge’s 1999 classic comedy film Office Space lay in its ability to canonize little horrors we take for granted—the jammed printer, the banal chatter about Mondays, the TPS report—that signify larger forms of oppression and dehumanization. The triggers might shift, along with remote and asynchronous work arrangements and new technologies of inscription and communication, but mostly they just accumulate.

The single feature of the modern corporate workplace that feels most dystopian to me is the practice of sharing electronic calendars. Bosses have full access to the schedules of their subalterns (more commonly referred to as their direct reports) and populate the open spaces with meetings and tasks. Especially in the absence of the consistently shared space of an open-plan office, many companies rely on the continuously shared calendar—a complex timetable created by synchronized schedules of nested or overlapping communities of employees, colleagues, and counterparts.

I can’t quite put my finger on why it strikes me as so ominous to have someone else unilaterally fill in the blanks in my schedule—and why I feel so fortunate not to labor in a workplace that operates that way. In part, my reaction dovetails with a general aesthetic distaste for electronic calendaring. I prefer and even fetishize pocket-sized paper calendars, selected annually from a favorite stationery store far from my home out of a staggering array of colors, textures, and (crucially) formats. But the objection is not primarily aesthetic, nor is it purely a matter of entrenched habit or the mnemonic value of physically inscribing a plan in ink on paper.

Google Calendar and its equivalents don’t simply replace paper diaries and appointment books. They pose a challenge more generally to the calendar as a complex set of social rhythms. Those rhythms are, paradoxically, both more broadly shared and more precisely connected to our individual memories and habits than what the synced electronic calendar permits and promotes. Calendars are more than just devices for storing information about future or past appointments. They are systems for coordinating schedules on a national scale (as in the observance of annual holidays) or even a global scale (as in the convention of the International Date Line). But they also provide the coordinates that we use to synchronize, stagger, sequester, or postpone activities in our ordinary lives.

Perhaps the clearest example of such a calendar is the endlessly repeated seven-day cycle we call the week. Weekly cycles shape the rhythms of our working lives, obviously (though less forcefully than in earlier decades), but also our class schedules, custody arrangements, exercise habits, sports watching, and religious worship. They structure the rhythms of our social lives. Many of us do the same things every Tuesday, or only on Tuesday, or in patterns that make Tuesdays feel pretty consistently not like Wednesdays. Weeks have not served this function always and everywhere (nor have weeks existed always and everywhere, for that matter). But over the last two centuries in many Western societies, and especially in the United Sates, they have differentiated the experiences of the seven days and given most people reasons to care about and remember their place in the cycle.

We do lots of things in seven-day rhythms, typically not because we are required to by law, or bound by tradition, but rather because the week is a timekeeping technology that allows strangers with quite different lives to plan and remember their varied commitments, obligations, and needs to coordinate with one another. The electronic calendar promises to liberate us, eventually, from all that by making our appointments moveable, irregular, temporarily forgettable, and perhaps not even subject to our input.

. . . .

When thinking about temporality, we rarely focus on calendars, in part because of how poorly many of our calendar practices conform to general observations about modern time. Instead we take critical aim at the clock, as either the agent of modern time discipline or the symbol of time’s commodification. Jenny Odell’s Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock offers a recent prominent example. Odell adds her voice to a growing chorus that laments modern ideologies of capitalist time management with renewed urgency in the wake of the pandemic shutdown in 2020, which allowed or forced us to experience time differently. Odell’s descriptions of her shutdown experiences, with which many readers will surely identify, yield larger reflections on the artificiality and historical novelty of many of the conventions that prop up uniform, homogeneous, linear clock time. She reminds us that other cultures measure time differently or refrain from measuring it at such.

Our calendars, though, differ from our clocks. Although they have served many of the same industrial purposes and colonial agendas, calendars and clocks model distinct understandings of time. Clocks assert the fundamental fungibility of all quantitatively equivalent time units—this is a crucial part of what we mean when assert that time is money. The temporal framework of calendars, by contrast, typically creates or highlights differences: seasonal variations, festive time vs. ordinary time, named time vs. number time, red letter days. The week, as a calendar framework, exemplifies this tendency in a striking way, because no two consecutive days are alike (nor are their differences best understood in quantitative terms or as a linear progression). As for calendars as material artifacts, they too typically show us differences, circles, punctuations, and irregular beats in what we might otherwise think of as the flow of time. Some of those calendars even allow us to write our own schedules.

David M. Henkin is Margaret Byrne Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His previous books include The Postal AgeCity Reading, and (with Rebecca McLennan) Becoming America: A History for the 21st Century. He lives in San Francisco, CA, and Bozeman, MT.

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