Helga Schmid



The perception of having ‘no time’ is not only an individual issue. It is an essential, structural concern within Western societies, which needs to be addressed in the politics of time.


Technologies shape and are shaped by society. They are neither the problem nor the solution.


Deadlines–not bound to any laws or regulations–cross all the boundaries of labour and leisure, public and private, across all time zones.


We are imprisoned in our own system of clocks and calendars, even so they are only one element in the interplay of temporality (lived time).


Time is the true metric for human satisfaction and welfare rather than the economic prosperity.


Now is the time to question our existing working patterns and our current temporal structure. 


Now is the time to unlearn clock time and gain temporal freedom.


No one can hold us back from consciously experimenting with the design of time, on an individual and societal level.  


Time is like an orchestra. It is about the right timing, with time spans reaching from one moment up to deep time.


It is time for Uchronia, the temporal Utopia.

An essay on sychnchronisation processes and alternative time


Before the Middle Ages, the word ‘time’ was not part of everyday language, the passing of time was instead seen as a natural process, not managed or structured by human beings. A belief in destiny dominated the thinking of earlier societies, and this notion of time is best described as ‘fluid time’–a continuous flow and experience of time.

Although external natural rhythms and conditions have always played a central role in the life of human beings, a scientific awareness and understanding of the functional principles and rhythms of the human body clock only arose in the second half of the twentieth century. The body clock controls and regulates functions on all levels of the human body, including gene expression, physiology, behaviour and cognition[1]. This is expressed by peaks in cognitive performance, physical ability, alertness and sleepiness, or the body temperature. 

The human body reacts to ‘entrainment signals,’ which, as described by the chronobiologist Russel Foster act upon a ‘biological oscillator which is synchronised to an environmental rhythm such as the light/dark cycle’.[2] The most influential time-giver is light, which, depending on its intensity, synchronises the biological clock with the outside conditions of day and night. 

The agricultural idyll described above, with its recurring rhythm of life, has its flip side. Autonomy, individual liberty and freedom of choice are accomplishments of the modern era. Contemporary approaches, often under the umbrella of the ‘slow movement’ or the popularised form of ‘mindfulness’ naively suggest we go back to this idyll, ignoring the actual living circumstances of the current time period. 

The idealised longing for a lost past ignores that we cannot easily return to such conditions. Even more important, most of us would not want to give up their present standards of living and do not understand the consequences of such a ‘simple life’. A leap back in time is not the simple answer or solution for today’s situation. 


At the beginning of the 15th century, a continuous desynchronisation process began, between the social construct of time and natural rhythms. From the introduction of mechanical clocks in the 14th century by the Church, clock time found its way into the rhythms of everyday life, and changed the perception of time in people’s minds. 

Moreover, the increasing availability of artificial light, from fire, candles and oil lamps to gas and electric lighting, disconnected people from the natural day-and-night rhythm; and the more that natural and social time drifted apart, the larger the physical effects on the human body. 

During the course of industrialisation, the desire for speed arose. New space-shrinking technologies like the railway, the automobile and the telegraph fostered the drive for speed, and led to a standardisation of world time in 1884, and therefore to the present structure of today’s timekeeping. The production of timekeeping devices facilitated the capitalist notion of time as a commodity; in Benjamin Franklin’s words, ‘time is money’. It could be ‘saved’, ‘spent,’ ‘wasted,’ ‘lost’, and much else. 

As a consequence of constant time keeping, the precise regularity of time entailed the establishment of a modern virtue, helped by Franklin: punctuality. This involved laborious training, from the first days of school to adult working life, and has become a matter of course today. We now know that what gets lost during the internalisation of clock time is the understanding and appreciation of one’s own inner clock, with consequences ranging from depression and obesity to cancer and a lower life expectancy.[3]

But it is not only the clock that is used as a structuring tool in the modern era. The Gregorian or Western calendar was introduced in 1582, and started a worldwide domination. It is currently the one calendar that can claim universal acceptance internationally for all temporal organisational purposes. Whilst its years, months and days originate in natural rhythms, the week is an artificial invention. The calendar allows for processes of synchronisation within society on a macro level. On a micro level, it facilitates precise scheduling by the segmentation of days into hours and minutes. Calendars and the act of scheduling facilitate a structure for everyday life, sacrificing spontaneity for the benefit of certainty. 

Clocks and calendars are the principal means of time management, but as collective societal rhythms slowly disappear, so does the notion of shared social time. In urban societies, the importance of natural rhythms continually diminishes in everyday life, as people spend almost all their time indoors, and are therefore less exposed to day/night oscillation and seasonal change.


The philosopher Byung-Chul Han characterises the contemporary situation of Western societies as a time crisis, a so-called dyschronia, which originates in the loss of a genuine rhythm.[4] Studies indicate that, in fact, people in Western societies do feel under increasing time pressure and complain about the scarcity of time. 

Digital technologies and the process of globalisation seem to add to this. In the 1970s, Jeremy Rifkin announced ‘computime’, which he defined as the ‘final abstraction of time and its complete separation from human experience and rhythms of nature.’[5]

Triggered by modern technologies, clock time has persisted with greater precision (for example with the atomic clock), but certain synchronisation dynamics have changed progressively over the years. For instance, punctuality has given way to flexibility—mobile phones, for example, allow us to be always available to others, enabling instant communication. This leads to shifting temporal structures within contemporary society, and we are caught in a vicious cycle. The sociologist Hartmut Rosa describes this as social acceleration. To take a single example, electronic messages allow instant communication. This accelerates the communication process and, according to Rosa, leads therefore to social change. The number of e-mails, for example, compared to letters, increases steadily, creating a need to answer more messages within the same time period. The speed of communication increases, and the desire for a new technological solution to it is proposed—so called time-saving devices. The circle of acceleration starts anew.[6]


In contrast to Rosa, Han proposes that time has lost its regulating and organisational aspect. Time lacks a sense of direction, whereby events are not connected with each other anymore. Time has become fragmented into the smallest possible unit of atomic particles, and the world has shrunk to singular, punctual events. In Han’s terms, ‘the atomization of time, destroys the experience of continuity.’[7] This results in a particular behaviour: out of the hunger for time grows a desire to overload the now with more and more ‘events’ in increasingly shorter timeframes. 

The important issue is not the scarcity of time itself; it is the present-day perception of being ‘pressed for time’. According to the sociologist Judy Wajcman, the actual number of working hours has remained consistent, or even decreased, over the past 60 years in Europe and the United States, and life expectancy in Western societies is increasing. Both indicate that we should have more time at hand than before; but the feeling of being rushed is more present than ever. Wajcman calls this the ‘time-pressure paradox’.[8]

This is reflected in a contempt for sleep as non-productive time. People in Western societies changed their sleeping behaviour from a presumed ten hours 200 years ago, to six and a half hours on average today. In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep, Jonathan Crary exemplifies sleep as a significant indicator of how capitalist thinking influences the fabric of everyday life. Today’s non-stop society pushes its citizens to constant activity, and ideally constant consumerism.[9]

Crary urges us to reconnect with natural and physical rhythms[10] in order to address the current crisis. Similarly, John Urry emphasises that ‘rhythmicity is a crucial principle of nature, both within the organism and in the organism’s relationships with the environment. And humans and other animals are not just affected by clock time but are themselves clocks.’[11]

Nowadays this fact is often ignored or overwritten by stimulants (from caffeine and nicotine to cocaine and amphetamines), which increase alertness and activity in the short-term. People reduce their hours of sleep so they can keep up with what our society glorifies: high productivity, activity and speed. This results in a conflict between social expectations and the actual time available, which creates a state of literal, physical exhaustion that leaves affected individuals with significant problems with managing their life. The number of people diagnosed with ‘Burnout Syndrome’ in Western societies is rising.[12]

What do we as a society and as individuals consider time well-spent or wasted? As Han explains, acceleration is only a secondary process. The core issue is an exaggerated appreciation of what he calls the vita activa over the vita contemplativa: active life over contemplative life. Acceleration is only a product of contemporary technological culture, rather than the trigger itself. Wajcman points out that technologies are a product of culture, and the relationship between temporal rhythms and technological devices is a result of cultural evolution: social shaping. 

Technology is too often seen as outside of social relations. But if time cannot be separated from collective rhythms, assumptions, and hopes of human life, then neither can the technologies that increasingly mark and shape time for us.[13]

This often leads to unintended consequences, which result from human action but not intention. Technologies shape and are shaped by society. They are neither the problem nor the solution, which indicates that the crisis has more deeply ingrained prehistory. It essentially starts with the way we individually think about time, especially its value. 


The intensity of being pressed for time varies hugely from person to person. The concept of individualisation emerged from the industrial era and continues to develop, leading to a hyper-individualised society. Zygmunt Bauman discusses in Liquid Modernity the shift to the ‘society of individuals’: People are actors of their own life, transforming their identity in response to the present situation. Bauman refers to modern life as a never-ending casting, where every action is evaluated anew, leaving the responsibility for success and failure fully to the individual.[14]

Society and politics are increasingly separate entities, detached from individual lives, and the dismemberment of societal structures is the consequence. Previous nine-to-five jobs[15], standard meal times, or the separation of work days and weekends slowly but surely melt away. This shift leads, on the one hand, to the individual’s autonomy of when to work, eat or rest. On the other hand, it can become a trap, making individuals work longer and longer hours. It is now all up to the individual—we are free to decide on our lives to a certain degree, in relation to jobs, relationships, or place of residence. 

This means an unprecedented freedom, but such optionality creates unforeseeable problems. For example, people now change jobs every couple of years or so. Compared with agricultural society, where people were farmers or craftsmen all their lives, the unconditional identification with one’s occupation has vanished. Autonomy, individual liberty and freedom of choice are the dominant features of today’s life. Time instead of money is suggested as an alternative measuring rod for human satisfaction.[16]

The extent to which a person is affected by acceleration processes depends on their status and position within society. The impact on each individual is difficult to measure, but our common perception is of being pressed for time. Individualisation and desire for autonomy changes the societal pattern and fosters the desynchronisation of temporal structures. 


An understanding of the human biological clock lends support to the notion of flexibility and individual temporal rhythms. Now the individual and his or her individual rhythm take on greater significance. How time is perceived depends on each individual, and their ability to harmonise or synchronise social time, natural and bodily rhythms. A meaningful new temporal structure must therefore be discussed at the individual level, based on physiotemporal and biotemporal order, rather than on conventionality of sociotemporal rules. The personal can then be employed on a political level.[17]  


The concept of uchronia was developed 140 years ago. However, up until now, the neologism pales beside its counterpart ‘utopia’. Charles Renouvier coined the word in his novel Uchronie, published in 1876. Two subtitles offer two plausible interpretations of uchronia: ‘utopia in history’, or ‘an apocryphal sketch of the development of European civilisation not as it was but as it might have been’. In other words, uchronia was originally conceived as an alternative history. 

Renouvier included a tree diagram that acts as a visualisation of the uchronian plot, in contrast to the course of history (Figure 1). In a typical model of uchronia, an historical event changes at a given point in time, leading to alternative consequences – reality and uchronia split into different plots. In my research, uchronia is located between reality and the imaginary, not necessary limited to the past, and at a point of divergence, a parallel narrative unfolds. 

Fig. 1

Lyman Tower Sargent talks about ‘three faces of utopianism’.[18] Certainly, the uchronian world is much smaller in comparison to the universe of utopia; yet the reduction of uchronia to alternative history alone does not suffice. Taking a cue from Sargent’s Utopianism, I suggest three faces of uchronianism. The first face is uchronia as alternative history, as previously explained. 

The second is equivalent to a ‘temporal utopia’ offering an imaginary escape in the form of a time paradise. According to the sociologist Helga Nowotny, uchronia strongly refers to the utopian concept: ‘Uchronias, like utopias before them, have a central social function to fulfil: they contain proposed solutions to particular unsolved problems in a society.’[19]Uchronia in this sense is located in the now or the near future, and is intended to offer a new and better experience of time. She is concerned with how time is managed in daily life. Her uchronia is about a better conception of time. 

The third face comprises the use of uchronia in relation to its historical linguistics origin. Referring to uchronia as ‘no-time’ (ou-chronos), it suggests a ‘non-existent time’. In contrast to alternative history, uchronia is not related to an historical event or any precise point in time. 

Here I present a visual summary of the various uchronian definitions, creating a set of graphical representations of uchronian models (Figures 2 to 4). The diagrams are a continuation and extension of the visual language of Renouvier’s original drawings of uchronia: line drawings and single characters (e.g. now = 0, uchronia = A).

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Uchronia, I propose, can be a temporal utopia, and with a focus on Nowotny’s second vision of uchronia, a breaking out of standardised time. At its heart is the search for the spontaneity of the vicissitudes (ups and downs) of life. Natural rhythms, especially the human circadian rhythm, are suggested as an alternative to current social time norms. By rethinking uchronia, we can open up opportunities to enrich and influence the discussions on the present-day perception of time. 

Fig. 4

There are those who think their bodies don’t exist. They live by mechanical time. They rise at seven o’clock in the morning. They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six. They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock. They make love between eight and ten at night. (…) When their stomach growls, they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat.

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Unlearn Time

Ten participants formed an independent time community. They were removed from societal time – left alone – reduced to their bodies. The transitions from active to rest phases was very fluid, and not at all related to the contemporary fragmentation of time (or alarm clocks). They described their experience as Lightman wrote:

They do not keep clocks in their houses. Instead, they listen to their heartbeats. They feel the rhythms of their moods and desires. Such people eat when they are hungry, go to their jobs (…) whenever they wake from sleep, make love all hours of the day. Such people laugh at the thought of mechanical time. They know that time moves in fits and starts.


Helga Schmid is the founder of Uchronia, an artistic research practice and platform, which explores the multifaceted nature of time in an academic and cultural context. Helga is Course Director of the BA (Honours) Graphic and Media Design at London College of Communication, and resident at Somerset House. In 2019, she was named as one of London’s most influential people in Technology AR/VR, after having been a Designer in Residence at the Design Museum in London in 2018. Helga worked as a researcher in the Architecture and Design department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as Senior Tutor at the Royal College of Art in London, and internationally as a designer/artist on high-profile projects. Her work has been exhibited and featured worldwide, including at the BBC, the Serpentine Gallery, the Design Museum in London, Dia Art Foundation in New York, and the Istanbul Design Biennial.


Works Cited:

[1] Till Roenneberg et. al., ‘Epidemiology of the Human Circadian Clock’, Sleep Medicine Reviews, VI, 11 (2007), 429–438.

[2] Russell G. Foster and Leon Kreitzman, Rhythms of Life: The Biological Clocks that Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing (London: Profile Books, 2004), p. 245.

[3] Till Roenneberg et. al., ‘Social Jetlag and Obesity’, Current Biology, X, 22 (2012), 939–943.

[4] Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time (Translated excerpt of Duft der Zeit), ( Bielefeld: Transcript, 2009 ), p. 7. In biological studies, the term dyschronia is used for symptoms of diseases related with the inability to passess the passage of time. The journal article Dyschronia’ in a patient with Tourette’s syndrome presenting as maternal neglect by McGilchrist, Wolkind, and Lishman, for instance, describes this phenomena in relation to the Tourette’s syndrome. See I. McGilchrist, S. Wolkind, and A. Lishman, ‘‘Dyschronia’ in a patient with Tourette’s syndrome presenting as maternal neglect’, The British Journal of Psychiatry, ii, 164 (1994), 261–263.

[5] Jeremy Rifkin, Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human history ( New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, cited in Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman, eds, High-speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity (Philiadelphia, pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), p. 189.

[6] Wajcman makes a similar point about time-saving devices in the household. She describes the paradoxical phenomena, that 

the devices alter behaviour and standards rather than saving time (e.g. cleaner cloth). See Judy Wajcman, Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (Chicage, il: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 118-122.

[7] Han, 2009, p. 9.

[8] Wajcman, 2014, pp. 61-65.

[9] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep ( New York: Verso Books, 2014 ), p. 11.

[10] Henri Lefebvre suggests a similar approach in relation to time and space. The body functions as a metronome, the starting point and tool for analysis and research. See Henri Lefebvre, Stuart Elden, and Gerald Moore, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[11] John Urry, ‘Speeding Up and Slowing Down’, cited in Rosa et al., 2009, p. 182.

[12] Roenneberg et al., 2012.

[13] Wajcman, 2014, p. 2.

[14] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000).

[15] Working hours (the nine-to-five model) are altered through changing working models in the form of flexible working patterns. Especially affects high-end and low-end jobs. In high-end jobs there is a growth of temporal sovereignty (e.g. flexible hours), while low-end jobs are characterised by temporary or zero hour contracts. (Zero-hours is a type of work contract common in the UK. It does not guarantee any job security or permanent work, only the hours worked are getting paidSee OED Online, ‘Zero-hours’. 

Available at : http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/zero-hours [ Accessed 3 September 2018 ].

[16] A large-scale study on discretionary time in Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden and the United States explored how life-style choices impact on work-life balance and temporal pressure on the individual. It suggests time as the natural metric for human welfare rather than the economic welfare. In contrast to ‘spare time’ (168 hours per week, minus actual time in paid labour, unpaid household labour and personal care), they suggest to discuss people’s ‘discretionary time’ (168 hours per week, minus necessary time in paid labour, unpaid household labour and personal care). For more details, see Robert E. Goodin et al., Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[17] In reference to the paper ‘The Personal is Political’ (1970) by Carol Hanisch. Available at: http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html [ Accessed 3 September 2018 ].

[18] Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5.

[19] Helga Nowotny, Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience (Cambridge, Angleterre: Polity Press, 1996), p. 139.