Can we abolish time?

An island in Norway wants to cut ties with the clock so residents are free to mow their lawns at 4 a.m.

Can we abolish time?

An island in Norway wants to cut ties with the clock so residents are free to mow their lawns at 4 a.m.

A couple of weeks ago, a “lighter side of the news” story broke that was compelling in a way that transcended virality, breaking loose into the realm of metaphysics: there is a Norwegian island called Sommarøy, and it wants to “erase the concept of time.” The northern Norway island, which has around 350 residents, is in constant darkness from November to January, but experiences perpetual sunlight from May to July (its name translates as “Summer Island” — obviously derived from the only possible time of year you’d want to go). A local man named Kjell Ove Hveding, who for whatever complex biographical or psychological reason has found himself at the head of the “Time-Free Zone” campaign, handed his petition calling for the abolition of time to his local member of parliament, conservative Kent Gudmundsen, last month.

The Sommarøy Time-Free Zone campaign is like some sort of philosophical idealist’s dream: finally, we will be able to prove that one of the basic categories structuring what we call “reality” is in fact completely made up.

But what is it that the residents of Sommarøy want to abolish, exactly? “All over the world, people are characterized by stress and depression,” Hveding has stated. “In many cases this can be linked to the feeling of being trapped, and here the clock plays a role. We will be a time-free zone where everyone can live their lives to the fullest.”

“Our goal is to provide full flexibility,” Hveding said. “If you want to cut the lawn at 4 a.m., then do it.” In Sommarøy, residents claim, playing soccer or drinking a coffee on the beach at 2 a.m. is simply a normal thing that one does, and they want to stop feeling like they have to apologize for it.

And so far from wanting to abolish time wholesale, there is at least one sense in which the residents wish to keep it exactly the same. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant — whose understanding of time has been decisively influential for most philosophy — defines time as “inner sense” (thus contrasting it with space, the “outer sense”), a “subjective condition of our (human) intuition” which is required to be able to represent motion and alteration. “Only in time can two contradictorily opposed predicates meet in one and the same object, namely, one after the other,” he says. Kant, incidentally, was a “transcendental idealist” — which meant that he didn't think that things like time were “real” in the sense that they exist in the world outside us, just necessary for us to be able to represent reality to ourselves. So while time might not be real as such, we still can’t do anything to change it.

“We will be a time-free zone where everyone can live their lives to the fullest.”
Kjell Ove Hveding

At any rate: the residents of Sommarøy clearly don't want to abolish our basic time-sense, since this would make the representation of motion and alteration impossible — and so they wouldn't be able to play soccer or have a coffee on the beach, not only at 2 a.m. but at all. The reason why the Mad Tea Party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is “mad”: the Hatter has quarreled with Time after being accused of murdering it while singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and so the Time for him is now always 6 p.m. The Hatter and the March Hare’s madness is that of men (or hares) plunged into a purgatory of constant stasis.

Rather, Hveding et al want to abolish not the movement of time, but the association of this movement with the clock: the time of “Greenwich Mean Time.” This is the time that says everywhere in the world it will be, say, 7 a.m. at some point, and at this time most people are expected to be getting up; everywhere it will be 5 p.m. at some point, so most people must stop work; everywhere, there will come a point where it is midnight — and at this point one must be asleep, or at least try to be quiet because most other people are expected to be sleeping. The residents of Sommarøy want to make it normal to socialize, play music, and mow their lawns at the point designated by e.g. “4 a.m.” (or any time).

This sort of beholdenness to the clock has been thoroughly naturalized — without it, it is hard to think of what time might even be. So it can feel strange to learn that Greenwich Mean Time was only adopted across the UK in 1847, with Coordinated Universal Time being mandated as late as the 1960s. GMT’s placing of the UK at the center of the globe, UTC+00:00 in the winter; UTC +01:00 in the summer, is a reminder that modern, 24-hour time was designed to serve the purposes of people who live day-night cycles all year round. Initially, GMT was adopted in favor of “Local Mean Time” in order to serve the needs of the railways, which required accurate schedules to move quickly between different parts of the country. But on a tiny island where the sun barely rises or sets, it simply doesn't apply in the same way. So why not simply be rid of it?

“Society has only been ruled by the clock for the past two centuries,” a Norwegian philosopher of time told the Guardian in regards to Sommarøy. “Before that, you worked mostly as long as it was necessary, you ate food when you were hungry and you lay down when you were tired. In modern society, everything we do is controlled by the pace of the clock, from the moment we get up.”

While it is not remotely accurate to suggest that social compulsion only started to exist with the arrival of the railways, it is nevertheless true that distinctively modern forms of compulsion are made possible through the imposition of standard time. There is thus a utopian element to Sommarøy's proposed abolition of it. I am reminded of the pastoral utopia Theodor Adorno envisions in his aphorism “Sur L’Eau” from Minima Moralia, in which an “emancipated society” has grown “tired of development” and, “out of freedom,” decides to leave human possibilities unused, “instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars.”

“Doing nothing like an animal, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, ‘being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfilment.’”

That said there are clear limits to the scope of Hveding’s political imagination. He has assured skeptics, for example, that children and young people will “still have to go to school” — which as far as I can tell from haphazardly Googling things in Norwegian, means traveling off the island into the region of the nearby city of Tromsø, at least for everything past third grade. And since the island relies quite heavily on the tourism industry, hotels will still need to set hours for check-outs, breakfast, etc. — which could well end up happening to be ones which suit mainlanders, and not just Sommarøy residents. As long as the clock rules somewhere, it to some extent rules everywhere.

Nevertheless: Sommarøy's quest to abolish time must provide us with an occasion for reflection. How might we (or the “we” that does not live on an island in or near the Arctic Circle) remake our own time?

When it comes to decoupling itself from the clock, Sommarøy has certain obvious geographical advantages — but that doesn't mean we couldn't be more optimally calibrated to our own geography. The UK, for instance, is clearly on the wrong time for at least half the year, with the switch back to UTC +00:00 after summer, ostensibly to “save” daylight, always making everything immediately a lot darker.

The compulsion of the clock is clearly associated with work — but not everyone works traditional hours. Social atomization and the reluctance of employers to provide the people they employ with proper benefits means that increasingly, work nowadays means freelancing — 40 percent of New York City’s labor force is freelance; while in the UK, the number of young people who are self-employed has nearly doubled since 2001.

Self-employment can mean a lot of different things, from hairdressing to proofreading to driving an Uber. But certainly not all freelance work is going to be based in the time zone where one lives. I live in the UK but do most of my work for, well, The Outline, which is based in New York — so perhaps it would make more sense for me to fit my day around American Eastern Standard Time. In practice, however, I work a pretty regular schedule from around 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. my time, often taking advantage of the delay in time zones in order to finish my writing “later.” My partner, who is also self-employed, currently spends a lot of her time lying awake at night because a fetus is kicking the inside of her uterus and, as a result, she has felt the horizons of her world merge with those of Australia. We exist on UK time — but that “time” is nevertheless always experienced through our simultaneous participation in other time zones.

We already do exist to a certain extent in a 24-hour world, and its reality is that we have made the clock's rule still more total.

As the old utopian slogan goes: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” One image of a perfect day: at least, within the confines of a world which has yet to abolish work wholesale. But of course that still leaves open which eight hours one might choose to dedicate to what. Abolishing the clock would make any combination possible in theory, provided one wasn't all that fussy about daylight. But of course, we already do exist to a certain extent in a 24-hour world (I could go to the supermarket whenever I wanted, for example, except on Sundays), and its reality is that we have made the clock’s rule more total.

The rise of freelancing is associated, more than anything else, with the “gig economy” — which has created a class of precarious workers who are only able to make ends meet if they rush to action whenever the app they receive work through switches to “surge time.” The internet — and smartphones — have made it much easier for white-collar workers to do their jobs outside of the office, existing on a timescale freer than that of the traditional commute, but this has created the expectation that they will always be available to answer emails. Increasingly, in order to survive, one must be on call at all times.

But there is another sort of time, which contrasts both with basic time-sense and the time of the clock. “What characterizes revolutionary classes at their moment of action,” Walter Benjamin writes in his essay “On the Concept of History,” “is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode.”

“The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar presents history in time-lapse mode. And basically it is this same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus, calendars do not measure time the way clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe, it would seem, for the past hundred years.”

Our basic time-sense allows us to perceive motion and change; the time of the clock dictates that we do particular things at particular times. But according to Benjamin, the time of the calendar determines historical consciousness: it thus determines the scope of what we are able to do at all. On his understanding, revolutionary movements often set new calendars in order to symbolize their break with the old ways of doing things.

Perhaps this is what we would need to do if we want, in contrast to the Mad Hatter, to exist on good terms with Time. Abolishing the clock, like Sommarøy wants to, will only get us so far. Real liberation can only come with a new historical consciousness — by remaking Time, and with it, our whole way of life, anew.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.