Jenny Odell’s book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock is a timely (excuse the pun) and important meditation on the nature of time and how we can live more fulfilling lives in a world that is constantly demanding our attention. Odell argues that our current understanding of time is based on the industrial clock, which is a tool of efficiency and productivity, not a reflection of the natural world or our own human needs. She urges us to reclaim our time and live more in accordance with the rhythms of the planet and our own bodies. Her book shows us that time is a sociological and political matter – more than we realise – and that it plays out for everyone differently depending on our position in the social hierarchy.
Who is Jenny Odell?
Jenny Odell is an American multidisciplinary artist, writer, and educator. She is the author of the books How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019). Her work generally involves acts of close observation, whether it's birdwatching, collecting screenshots, or trying to parse bizarre forms of e-commerce. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, McSweeney's, and Sierra Magazine. Odell's work often explores the relationship between technology and the natural world and she advocates for a more mindful and sustainable way of life.
What is Jenny Odell’s Saving Time about?
Odell begins by tracing the history of timekeeping, from the sundial to the digital clock. She shows how our understanding of time has been shaped by the needs of industry and capitalism, and how this has led to a world where we are constantly rushed and stressed. She writes: “When the relationship of time to literal money is expressed as a natural fact, it obscures the political relationship between the seller of time and its buyer. This may seem obvious, but if time is money, it is so in a way that’s different for a worker than for an employer.”
Thus Odell explains that for the worker, time is a certain amount of money—the wage. But the buyer, or employer, hires a worker to create surplus value; this excess is what defines productivity under capitalism. What she comes to realise is that the capitalist system is not designed to save time with technological advances, but instead, is used purely for economic growth. As a result she states: “The only reward for working faster is more work.”
She puts the onus on thinkers like Scottish economist Adam Smith, who contributed to the idea of a Western Man driven by the “imperative to survive”.
Odell mentions Jamaican writer and theorist Sylvia Wynter, who wrote that “human beings were rendered economic machines that seek to maximize their share of sparse natural resources”. For this reason, it is our inevitable impulse behind grabbing more materials and assets around us. And she argues that “Europeans just did it better than everyone else”, and as a result, came to vindicate capitalism, white supremacy, and imperial expansion.
How we should think about time differently
Hence, she argues that we need to find a new way of thinking about time, one that is more human-centred and sustainable. In English, the word ‘experience’ has a common origin with experiment. To experience something is to be present for it, to be the responsive co-creator of something that is happening. Much of what we do experience is externalised, whether that is watching a film or listening to music. Odell calls for us to respond to our surroundings, instead of just being a bystander. She writes: “The task for many of us is to learn once more how to hear.”
Alternative to time as a means of productivity
Odell is a proponent for the Greek term Kairos over Chronos which she mentions in the outset of the book. Chronos is the forward propelling time that we measure with clocks, on watches, and by the evolutionary phases of the moon. But time does not end there. The Greeks’ second word for time is “kairos” — lesser known but no less important. “Kairos” is what many philosophers and mystics would refer to as “deep time”. Here she emphasises not to “seize time” but to “seize the time”. For the author, time in the plan doesn’t appear flat, dead, inert. Instead, in the “meantime,” you need to wait with your ear to the ground for patterns of vibration that will never repeat themselves. Time will flow, and we must flow with it.
Odell offers a number of suggestions for how we can reclaim our time in her own way by referring to her own memories and moments. Whether this is through poems and fairy tales she has read, hikes she has undertaken, or dreams that she has witnessed. She encourages us to slow down, to be more mindful of our surroundings, and to spend more time in nature. She also suggests that we find ways to work less and play more, and to connect with others in more meaningful ways.
Saving Time is a thought-provoking and inspiring book that offers a new perspective on the nature of time and how we can live more fulfilling lives. It is a must-read for anyone who is feeling overwhelmed by the demands of modern life. Moreover, it is a damning indictment of our society that treats people like machines, and not human beings living on this beautiful rock for a fleeting second.
If you liked this…
In the meantime, check out the episode on being over-busy with Crazy Busy author and psychologist Thijs Launspach.