The Metronomic Society: Natural Rhythms and Human Timetables 
by Michael Young.
Thames and Hudson, 301 pp., £16.95, May 1988, 0 500 01443 4
Show More
Show More

Michael Young is a rarity among sociologists: he has a feel for the people he writes about, and he writes well. When he takes us into a Merseyside factory and walks us around in the company of Joe Murgatroyd, works superintendant, we can hear the shoes clopping, the machines humming or missing, we can see the workers cocking an ear, and we can feel the anxiety of the foremen running to keep things in hand. Young’s prose is easy, colloquial, free of jargon, to the point where the reader is almost unaware of his blessed privilege until Young has occasion to cite one of his sociological colleagues: and then suddenly we pass from clear to the opaque. Society, he tells us, for example, does not pulse to just one beat after another, but to scores of different ones at once. And then, following immediately thereafter: ‘My view is similar to ... that structure is “the mode in which the relation between moment and totality expresses itself in social reproduction.” Thank you very much.

Young made his early reputation by his work in urban anthropology (Family and Kinship in East London) and then, even more, by a piece of sociological analysis in the guise of Science Fiction. The Rise of the Meritocracy was a sensation of the Fifties, not only because it held up this nightmare vision of a specialist, functionalist society pushed to its logical extreme, but even more because it suggested that our own society works only because it is not efficiently meritocratic, because we do not succeed in putting the right man in the right place, because we do discriminate – with the result that the unsuccessful and deprived have the consolation of injustice. Take that away, choose so well that everyone gets his just deserts, and we would be thrown upon our shortcomings, brutalised by reality, thrust into a slough of despond.

Now, many years later (Young is a doer – there were the Consumers’ Association and the Open University in between), Young talks to us about rhythm and time – about the ways in which our lives, our work, our social interactions are shaped, constrained, given form by the regularities of our bodies and the world around us. It is a wonderful topic, wide-ranging in its ramifications, intimate in its manifestations, and it gives full scope to Young’s intuition and virtuosity.

It also strains the research, and Young has been obliged to rely heavily on published monographic sources. That in itself is no sin: and is presumably why scholars write their monographs, so others can and will use them. But it does entail on occasion a second- or third-hand view and hence leads to mistakes. When Young tells us that the ancient Hebrews, as pastoralists, developed a lunar calendar, he is ignoring the agricultural side of that civilisation and the seasonal character of its festivals. (For that matter, even animal-centred societies, whether as hunters or breeders, have to be attentive to seasons.) Seasonal means solar, and the Hebrew calendar was in fact a lunisolar calendar, as was the Chinese. Young cites Boorstin on this point, but Boorstin gets it right. (There is also one howler that deserves an erratum slip: on page 200 we learn of a book on feudalism by that great French Medievalist Maurice Bloch. The reference note gets it right.)

The book begins with the co-existence of the cyclical and the linear, of repeating phenomena and the march of passing time, and notes the pervasive presence of both in our consciousness and patterned activity. The cyclical is the more fundamental: it is both within us in the form of biorhythms, and without in the reassuring return of light, heat and the seasons. This repetition of change, Young argues, saves man from the terror of the boundless, and if there are readers for whom that alternative seems far-fetched, let them think on the Aztecs, who were convinced that they had to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of victims to ensure that the Sun would rise again.

The cyclical, then, is the natural, and the linear is man’s antistrophic imposition of system and artifice upon life. It is the linear that allows us to track uniform time, measured by standardised units; to organise our activities, not about our human proclivities, but in accord with imposed schedules; to inflict regularity upon the impulse to variety and variation. Modern technology would be impossible without it, and the trend is to push it ever further: witness the JIT (just in time) production techniques developed in Japan and now imitated everywhere in a competitive industrial world.

Such temporal constraints generate severe stress as time, which is the least elastic dimension, becomes crowded with new duties, obligations and, yes, diversions. Young is particularly attentive here to the trials and tribulations of those people, businessmen, professionals, who think of themselves as masters of their time, yet have mortgaged it in advance and never have enough of it. And they are not alone. Everyone is beset, to the point where Young envisages a world in which desperate humans turn much of their communication, as well as their production, over to machines.

Much of this, he conjectures, will take place at night, when calling rates are low and human masters are asleep and unable to intervene or interfere. (We have the material here for another Science Fiction novel, this time about the revolt of the gigabytes.) There is already some unilateral automation in the United States, where robot recordings are programmed to call consumers and question them about their buying habits. These may not get so high a response rate as real living callers: but neither are their feelings hurt when the householder hangs up on them.

Time discipline, then, has given us wealth, but as Young warns us, it has also caged us and driven us to the brink, and to drink. What we need, he tells us, is a temporal retreat or reversal: ‘my argument is that it is perilous to override our biological rhythms, which are tied in to astronomical rhythms, as we have done and are increasingly doing. This must seem like flying in the face of social (if not natural) evolution, after all that I have said about it and particularly after I have given a role to technology which seems to require that people (or at any rate the majority of people) should submit fully to the discipline of the mechanical clock and other machines.’ Yet temporal liberation is what he wants, in the form of ‘a reversal of social evolution, not wholesale but at the margin’. There are precedents, he tells us, in nature: animals can evolve, for example, toward larger antlers and then smaller ones. So why can’t we ‘nudge the trend in a different direction’? Why can’t we ‘move toward a freedom from the clock and re-establish an entente with the sun’? The alternative, he says, would be a society in which large numbers took to ‘time-bending drugs to try and escape from the new lockstep’.

As such quotations show, this book is one more contribution to a large body of literature dealing with temporal oppression: there already exists a small library of works with titles like ‘The Tyranny of Time’. Most of them, however, are little better than ideological excursions, often of the anarchist persuasion. The advantage of the Young version is that it is fully aware of the advantages and power of accurate time-measurement and of the role of time discipline in the working of a modern society. It recognises that we cannot live and produce without it. Hence the ‘nudge’ approach.

Even that, however, may not do the job. The fact is that, as Young realises only too well, not only are temporal constraints and rigidities indispensable to effective work and co-existence, but they are rooted in deep psychic needs (he devotes an entire chapter to the role and significance of habit, that ‘flywheel of society’). People use and cherish them to give structure to their lives: witness the psychic disarray of newly retired people who suddenly do not know what to do with themselves, which is another way of saying, what to do with time.

What’s more, time discipline is spreading. This book deals primarily and overwhelmingly with the Anglo-Saxon world. Had Young widened his geographical coverage, he would have been less hopeful. As countries find themselves increasingly integrated into a world economic system, they find it necessary to learn new ways of time, and the two are so closely linked that consumption (use) of timepieces is as good a proxy as any for rate and degree of economic modernisation. In a world of competitive production units, moreover, it is hard to envisage unilateral concessions in this area: hence the quixotic character of such appeals and dreams as we have here. (This has always been true: witness the historical necessity for rules or laws limiting the length of the working day and setting similar caps on time-forcing and squeezing: if such limitations are to work at all, they must apply to everyone.)

The book ends with an epilogue like none other that I know: the intimate picture of a West Country fisherman’s dawn and his preparations for a possible day at sea. There enter into his calculations the running of the sea and the tides, the season (fish, too, have their seasonal patterns), the weather expected over the next 24 and 48 hours, the days of the week and the time left to Friday market. Time and nature and economy come together in the fisherman’s brain, with its enormous memory bank of experience; and even so, there is an element of risk, because all the givens may change, and the sea is a dangerous place, and fishing one of the most hazardous occupations known. ‘It is better,’ the fisherman’s father liked to say, ‘to be home wishing you were at sea than at sea wishing you were at home.’ Or as the Psalmist put it: ‘They that go down to the sea in ships, That do business in great waters, These have seen the works of the Lord.’

Young does not spell out what this has to do with the rest of the book, just tells us the changing thoughts and actions of our fisherman as the light rises and the sky whitens and then turns blue and the day begins. In this way he brings things back to the real and personal, to what the French call le temps vécu. And this is what remains with us: the man, the house, the sea, the wind ... and time that will not wait.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences