Algorithmic Cultures of Time

Helga Schmid, Kevin Walker

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


There is mounting evidence that artificial rhythms which disrupt the human circadian system adversely impact individual and collective health and wellbeing. The most artificial of all rhythms being numeric time as embodied in digital technologies, the digital clock on the face of every mobile phone is now in the hands of most people in every culture. Our research reaches across cultures to investigate the impacts of, and alternatives to, digital time and how it affects our sleep patterns, stress levels and how we coordinate with others.

Artificial timing mechanisms – those that do not rely on natural rhythms such as the day/night cycle or astronomical phenomena – date back to the first automated water clocks in ancient Egypt and Greece and China. Jeremy Rifkin (1989) pinpoints the clocks of Benedictine monks as the first means of structuring time through mechanical means, with clocks subsequently taking a role in navigation and colonisation, followed by the worldwide standardisation of increasingly precise clock time. Marx took clock time, particularly in the factories of his era, as a measure of the value of objects and labour, with industrial precision seemingly reaching a pinnacle in Taylor’s scientific management, when the stopwatch supplemented the clock for measuring worker productivity through time-and-motion studies.

The computer, however, enables microsecond-level precision (atomic clocks notwithstanding) in the temporal analysis and structuring of human behaviour, through the recording of keystrokes through to various sensors now embedded in smartphones, impacting users today in, for example, productivity, mindfulness and health-tracking apps. More generally, we hypothesise that the digital clock on mobile phones has become most people’s primary time-giver, thereby ‘programming’ entire communities and continents. The computer, by treating time as information instead of a fixed external reference point, can manipulate it in myriad ways. Increasingly precise scientific time has become societal time via technological products and services, which make new temporalities possible but also demand compliance, creating an interdependence that results in particular forms of work, knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviour becoming internalised by both the technologies and users (Nowotny, 1994). We adopt a ‘post-digital’ approach which no longer regards ‘the digital’ as separate, but as inextricably embedded in our infrastructure, interactions and identities.

The issue is not as simple as technology adversely affecting health: for example Zen Buddhist monks in Japan adhere to strict clock times, yet tend to be comparatively healthy. An anthropological approach focuses on cultural particularities whilst facilitating cross-cultural comparisons. Bidwell et al (2020) argue for example that sensitivity to the Aboriginal concept of ‘right time’ could help technology designers better support diverse temporal orientations. Chronobiology has investigated the effects of mobile technologies on the individual body, but no one has yet investigated the effects on individual and collective health and wellbeing of ‘computime' – defined by Rifkin as ‘the final abstraction of time and its complete separation from human experience and rhythms of nature.’
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 27 Oct 2022
EventCounterparts: Exploring Design Beyond the Human: Swiss Design Network Winter Research Summit - Zurich University of the Arts, Zurich, Switzerland
Duration: 27 Oct 202228 Oct 2022


ConferenceCounterparts: Exploring Design Beyond the Human
Abbreviated titleSDN2022
Internet address


  • time
  • temporality
  • Uchronia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Physiology
  • Information Systems


Dive into the research topics of 'Algorithmic Cultures of Time'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this