Whose Time, Whose Money?
The Port of OaklandTime to me is about life-span and the ageing of individuals against the background of the history of our world, the universe, eternity.
—Dominique, a schoolteacher interviewed in Barbara Adam’s TimewatchMoments are the elements of profit.
—A nineteenth-century British factory master, quoted in Karl Marx, Capital
We’ve emerged westward from the Seventh Street tunnel into the Port of Oakland, in a sun-blasted sedan I have had since high school. The clock in this car went dark at some undetermined point long ago, but my phone tells us it’s seven a.m., eight minutes after the sunrise.
Ahead is a wide cement expanse punctuated by palm trees and pieces of things: trucks without containers; containers without trucks; chassis, tires, boxes, pallets. All of them lumped together, sometimes stacked, partitioned in ways not immediately legible to us. A landscape of work. As the BART train tracks and their chain-link fence disappear underground, soon to pass beneath the San Francisco Bay, they reveal a different kind of train, double-stacked with containers in serendipitous color combinations: white and gray, hot pink and navy blue, bright red and dark, dusty red. There are a few indications of human bodily concerns: a picnic table painted red, a portable toilet, an empty food stand, and a vinyl ad for chiropractic services.
We pull into Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, which is separated from the SSA Marine terminal by a see-through fence. Just on the other side, the stacks are six containers high, giving the impression of an endless city made of corrugated metal. Farther ahead are the dinosaur-like figures: blue-green straddle carriers and white shipping cranes, some of them sixteen stories tall. A massive ship sits underneath them, having arrived from Shenzhen. But, for now, the equipment is sleeping; the workers are just clocking in.
In July 1998, the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) decided to make its researchers start clocking in and out of the lab. They could not have known the backlash this would inspire, not only at the institute but also across the world. Hundreds of scientists wrote in support of the INFN physicists’ complaints, saying that the move was needlessly bureaucratic, insulting, and out of step with how the researchers actually worked. “Good science can’t be measured by the clock,” wrote the former director of the American Institute of Physics. A physics professor from Rochester University surmised that “the US garment industry must be advising the INFN on how to improve productivity.” And the deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wrote in with cutting sarcasm: “Maybe they will chain you to your desks and benches next, so you do not go out after you come in, or better yet, install brain monitors to make sure you are thinking physics and not other thoughts while you are at your desks.”
In a compilation of the letters written in response to the new policy, only a few express ambivalence over the scientists’ protest. The most straightforward disagreement comes from Tommy Anderberg, a rare contributor with no listed professional affiliation. Instead, he identifies as a taxpayer and one who is angry about this kvetching by public employees:
Your employers, in this case anyone paying taxes in Italy (the real thing, money derived from earnings realized in the private sector, not the piece of accounting fiction being applied to your own, tax-financed paycheck), have every right to demand that you be at your place of employment at the times stipulated by your contract.
If you don’t like your terms of employment, quit.
In fact, I have a great suggestion if you want real freedom. Do what I did: start your own business. Then you’ll be able to call your own shots and work when, where and with whatever you feel like.
At its heart, this disagreement—between the working scientists on the one hand and the INFN and Tommy Anderberg on the other—isn’t just about what work is and how it should be measured. It’s also about what an employer buys when they pay you money. For Anderberg, it’s a package deal including not only work but also life minutes, bodily presence, and humiliation.
As attested to by the scientists’ wry jokes about factories and being “chained to a desk” (an image that comes up in several of the letters), the concept of clocking in and out comes from an industrial model of work. Probably one of the best illustrations of this model is the beginning of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times
. The very first image in the film is that of a clock—severe, rectangular, and filling the entire screen behind the title credits. Then a shot of sheep being herded fades into a view of workers exiting the subway and heading to work at “Electro Steel Corp.,” where two very different kinds of time exist side by side.
The first is leisurely: The president of the company sits alone in a quiet office, halfheartedly working on a puzzle and glancing idly through a newspaper. After an assistant brings him water and a supplement, he pulls up closed-circuit camera views of various sections of the factory. We see his face appear on a screen in front of a worker in charge of the factory’s pace. “Section Five!” he barks. “Speed her up, four one.”
Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, is now subjected to the second temporality—that of time as punishing and ever intensifying. On an assembly line, he frantically works to screw nuts into pieces of machinery, falling behind when he has to scratch an itch or is distracted by a bee hovering around his face. When his foreman tells him to take a break, he walks away jerkily, unable to stop performing the motions of his job. In the bathroom, the manic soundtrack briefly turns to reverie, and the Tramp calms down a bit, beginning to relish a cigarette. But all too soon, the face of the president appears on the bathroom wall: “Hey! Quit stalling! Get back to work!”
Meanwhile, the company tries out an inventor’s time-saving device. It comes with its own recorded advertisement: “The Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work. Don’t stop for lunch! Be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour.” On his break, the Tramp is picked out as management’s guinea pig and strapped into what is essentially a full-body vise behind a rotating platter of foods. Things get out of hand when the machine malfunctions and the corn cob rotator starts going too fast, slamming the spinning cob into the Tramp’s face over and over again.
I consider the corn cob malfunction one of the funniest movie moments I have ever seen. On the one hand, the scene is a joke about the capitalist’s desire to scrimp and save on the labor time for which he has paid—to squeeze more work from the worker in the same amount of time. (If humans could just eat corn faster, the crazily spinning cob might not be a problem at all.) On the other hand, it’s a joke about the human assimilated to a disciplinary pacing: Just as he must keep up with the assembly line and minimize bathroom breaks, he must also comply with the feeding machine’s rate of food delivery. He must become an eating machine.
Time, in this world, is an input just like water, electricity, or corn cobs. A 1916 advertisement by the International Time Recording Company of New York in Factory Magazine addressed the head of the factory and made this connection explicit: “Time costs you money. You buy it just as you buy a raw material.” In order to wring the most value from this time material, the employer resorts to surveillance and control. In a 1927 issue of Industrial Management, Calculagraph, another time recorder company, put it this way: “You pay them CASH! How Much TIME do They pay You?”
This final question makes sense only from the point of view of the factory owner, who is counting not just elapsed time, but time spent specifically producing value for him. The Tramp illustrates this distinction when he dutifully punches out in order to go to the bathroom and punches in again after the boss ends his break. Nor is this an exaggeration. In the history of work, things could get pretty granular: In the one hundred thousand words that make up the eighteenth-century rule book for the Crowley Iron Works, deductions from time paid included “being at taverns, alehouses, coffee houses, breakfast, dinner, playing, sleeping, smoking, singing, reading of news history, quarelling, contention, disputes, or anything forreign to my business, any way loytering . . . [sic].” In other words, a more accurate ad for the Calculagraph might have asked, “How much LABOR TIME do They pay You?”
Copyright © 2023 by Jenny Odell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.