Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: The Political Value of Time, by Elizabeth Cohen

I study geologic time for a living. That’s my job, and my day to day work involves making sure that the scientific instruments we use to figure out how many billions of years old various rocks are haven’t started to malfunction in ways that can generate millions of years of errors.

Apparently, though, most people don’t live their lives across the spans of eons and millions of years.  It’s good to remind myself of this every now and then, preferably before our fridge runs out of milk. One way to do this, and to gain some perspective on other ways of contemplating time, is by reading books of academic experts who study human interaction, instead of billion years old rocks. One such study is The Political Value of Time, by Professor Elizabeth Cohen (Syracuse University, USA).

Geosciences have a variety of ways to measure time. Of course, the fundamental unit of scientific time is the second- defined by atomic oscillations, from which minutes and hours are derived. But there is also astronomical time- days, months, years, and Milankovic cycles derived from the movement of rotating or orbiting moons and planets. And there are the various radioactive decay schemes, which give us 238U time 40K time, and other lesser used decay schemes, which are generally tied to one of those two systems. Comparing and cross-calibrating these various schemes is a lot of what geochronologists have been doing over the last 20 years.

The Political Value of Time combines all of these in to scientific time- e.g. the time measured by clocks and calendars. It discusses this, as opposed to other qualitative types of time used by social scientists, such as leisure time, overtime, and quiet time. Oddly, political researchers seem to have spent less time thinking about scientific time than some of these other fuzzy sorts, and this book tries to redress this situation.

The book shows that governments appropriate the time of their citizens in a way that constitutes a political economy of time. It then shows that there are several philosophical, practical, and technical reasons for this to be so. However, it points out that, because this area is understudied and the ramifications are not thought through, many of the unconscious and structural biases that burden other economies also make the economy of time less fair than it ought to be.

As it is outside my area of expertise, I don’t have the background to critically appraise the interpretations of French revolutionary philosophers and other cited works. Taking their referenced statements as given, however, yields a book with a clear, compelling, and straightforward argument. The vocabulary is specialized, and I reached for the dictionary many times in the introduction. However, the terms are used consistently and precisely through the entire book, so once the introduction is finished, the vocabulary becomes less intimidating.

As someone who used to travel extensively internationally for work, the queuing section struck all sorts of chords on the intersection of time, money, duty, efficiency, and information technology in the area of airport customs queues.

Over all, it is a good book, clearly argued. It looks like there are lots of opportunities for future research.