Disciplinary time

International Business Machines, better known to the world through its acronym IBM, may well be credited with inventing "computer time." However, in its earlier incarnation as the International Time Recording Company, IBM may have played a yet more critical role in inaugurating the modern age of what may be termed panopticon industrial efficiency.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2006 13:13 IST
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International Business Machines, better known to the world through its acronym IBM, may well be credited with inventing "computer time." However, in its earlier incarnation as the International Time Recording Company, IBM may have played a yet more critical role in inaugurating the modern age of what may be termed panopticon industrial efficiency.

The panopticon, to follow its earliest theorist Jeremy Benthan, refers to that modality for surveillance where by all those under surveillance, such as prisoners, are placed under the watchful eye of the jailer, but cannot in turn watch him.

In 1894, the International Time Recording Company introduced the time recording system and in less that 15 years, all its competitors had been eliminated. Each employee who came to work punched a time card at the time of his arrival and departure. The company sold its product to businesses with the argument that its clocks would "save money, enforce discipline and add to the productive time."

A 1914 brochure commended the company's product to the attention of businesses with the observation that "the time recorded induces punctuality by impressing the value to time on each individual." It is not merely time that would be reined in and regulated; the very actions of men were to be synchronised by time devices, better keepers of time than men.

Another publicity piece stated boldly: "There is nothing so fatal to the discipline of the plant, nor so disastrous to its smooth and profitable working as to have a body of men irregular in appearance, who come late and go out at odd times. The time recorder would assist management to weed out these undesirables.”

Yet it is clearly more than a desire to have men of reasonable appearance and demeanour working for them which animated companies that embraced the new time recording system: they assumed, of course, that the working classes, who alone were subjected to the indignity of this mechanism, were prone to dishonesty and deception, and that men and women from ignoble backgrounds were claiming compensation for more hours than they had actually worked.

Courtesy: Empire of Knowledge by Vinay Lal; Published by: Vistaar Publications

First Published: Mar 18, 2006 13:13 IST