Living in the age of ‘fast capitalism’ has created a homogeneized expectation of quick service as the hallmark of experiencing time. The idea of service is embedded in the notions around work and work ethics, social hierarchies, and not least, legal punitive cultures which varies in different societies. It is interesting to connect the past and the present in this regard through the prism of labour and law. The historical connectedness also opens up the questions of differentiated trajectories of world-regions, which I reflect upon only briefly and also anecdotally.
The digital world of service has no doubt made time further a fiercely quantifiable, and, more importantly, allegedly a transparent and shared entity between the service provider and the customer. We order food on Wolt, or any other delivery website, and the virtual clock starts ticking. Time and it’s display stands for the transparency of the service itself. In displaying the passage of time, what is displayed is the real-time performance of the commitment towards being efficient in providing the service. As the remaining minutes and seconds in the total time of delivery keeps reducing, we simultaneously also keep receiving updates on the service-stages: a human has seen the order, the food is getting packed, and finally it is out for delivery. In this mechanized experience of time, the personnel behind running this show of transparency and efficiency largely remain hidden. The cook remains invisible, and the delivery person becomes visible only towards the end. The transparency of service is premised upon making labour invisible. The digital technological interface that creates a direct engagement between the customer and the service effaces various forms of labour, pushing them in the background.
More or less, similar is the experience for procuring other types of services. In using cab ordering services, for example, we see the car moving as a point on a map in real time. The more interesting part is the narrowing gap of the ‘estimated time’. What we then experience is seeing time moving on the canvas of space. It is this movement of time, the gap between the real and the estimated times and the expectations created by it that shapes the idea of delay. In fact, in some ways it does it so intrinsically, for instance in cab ordering services, that one can use the delayed arrival of the cab as a reason to cancel the service. Just as an aside, this notion of experiencing time in such a direct visual manner, in which the entity of the service procured and the time in which it is organized are blurred into each other, is quite distinct from the experiences in the early modern and to a great extent in modern periods when time was mainly heard. The sound of the thud of the sinking bowl in the water clock or the hour-stroke on public clock towers marked the passage of time. The auditory characteristic of time is best expressed in Hindi phrase, ‘kitna baja hai’ for asking what time it is, which otherwise, quite literally, would translate as ‘what sound it is’.
Let me turn anecdotal here to come back to the meanings of the digitalized service-oriented experience of time. In my personal as well as through experiences of my friends, I have found it a little puzzling and annoyingly ridiculous that in order to get an internet connection installed at home, in advanced western countries like the UK or Germany, one needs to wait for a month, if not longer. Similarly, the meaning of the term appointment – the German termin – in many of the places such as in visits to doctors just loosely translate as the right to get seen that day. Otherwise, the appointment made for a precisely marked time in hours and minutes in practice often involves delays and waiting. In effect, termin ensures that one has earned the right to wait in the waiting room.
These examples show that the question of delay and its monetisation under capitalist impulses are not solely related to the private and public forms and domains of services, the former representing the capitalist alacrity towards observing fast and speedy service and the latter of sarkari/public sector ‘sluggish slowness’. That has indeed become the rallying point for capitalism in selling efficiency itself as a product. Nonetheless, in certain parts of the world, particularly in global north, service based upon the idea of ‘customer is god’ seems not to have penetrated deep into the cast which is moulded by a certain kind of work ethic. Comparatively speaking, the fashioning of the self through work which happened historically as part of industrialization has resulted in lesser amount of stigma attached to many kinds of manual work in the western world. At the risk of some ethnographic generalization, one can argue that in these societies a little bit of delay is perhaps fabricated, in a desirable way, to bolster up the image that work is being done at it’s most attentive level. Waiting then becomes less of a tool of expression of customer’s grievance and more a result of the (invented and performed) diligence observed by the service provider in finishing their task. One learns it quickly in cafes and pubs, when an impatient second call would be met by a grumpy reply, to wait as the person reminds that they are still busy finishing up the previous task.
In some ways then there is a clash between the idea of work, which fashions the identity and the self, and the idea of service, which is transactional and probably ephemeral. The worker or the service provider is wedded to work of which service is a part. The former should not get subsumed under the latter. Waiting and delay therefore acquires meanings beyond the interface of customer and service provider, beyond the time of ordering and the time of receiving the service. This might change soon though; as more and more service is provided by immigrants, refugees, and other marginal and precarious sections of the society, it is more likely that the political and social biases would permeate the understanding of work and service.
In contrast, in South Asia the idea of modern service has failed to fundamentally alter the social meaning of work. Customers not only behave as gods but that too a little demanding ones. Service has become part of the existing social hierarchies in which manual and so-called unskilled work is highly classed, gendered, and devalued. The maid arriving late at home, the driver reporting on duty a few minutes later, the sales girl not attending immediately, the cafe guy taking time to collect the order, in these service encounters, the relationships are less framed through the idea of service between the two equals and more through the historically shaped unequal forms of relationship, in which inequality has been girded and upheld by legal means. After all, in various parts of the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not finishing work on time was one of the most easiest and frequently invoked excuses by the masters and mistresses against their servants and other types of service providers to initiate the process of criminal prosecution. Delay was fabricated as an excuse, and then given a legal gloss of negligence of duty.
A long history of such unequal work relationship permeates the modern sensibility of service. The actual service provider or the delivery boy, the guard or the plumber, and largely those involved in the gig economy in the everyday life in South Asia, is a little inferior being in comparison to the consumer, often middle-class people, who are seeking their services. The digital world of service based upon technological interface has done no better in changing this equation.
While the formal forms of those unequal constituents have disappeared, the practical expectation nonetheless is often premised upon a sense of entitlement. In other words, the timely transparency and efficiency of fast capitalism in certain world regions is heavily mediated through work and service relationships that have historically evolved. It is indeed premised upon the idea of minimisation of delay, but delay itself is understood not only through the passage of time between the real and the estimated, but through the social and moral worldviews about people who are in the business of providing the service.
Worse still, the new digital platforms of procuring services have inherent system of surveillance through time-check and other features which strengthens wide-scope control over workers. Delay in this scenario, as it was in the past, has a constitutive element of punitive surveillance. In many cases, therefore, a genuine delay would be brushed aside as an excuse; a genuine reason of delay would be castigated as a lazy work behaviour of an individual.
The poor service providers ranging from maids to cooks, from delivery boys to guards, are the backbone of South Asian modern service capitalism. They are integral to the new digital-techonology system in which delay is heavily penalised at their cost. So, the new formation is not about the binary between the modern service economy and the slow moving, decadent public sector work culture. It is about the hierarchy-inflected nature of the graded and selectively punitive modern system itself. Looking in this way, the question of labour and the social does not come after the experience of time; it comes co-terminously with time, in both shaping and experiencing it. If efficiency gets judged by the moral and social locations of the worker or service provider, why would the factor of time which constitutes efficiency and delay, and the ways they are felt and judged, remain untouched by that larger world of moral and social judgements?
– Nitin Sinha
Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. He is currently working on the histories of time and temporal cultures in South Asia.
This article is written in the spirit of conversation with Arun Kumar who recently wrote on the same theme in an article titled ‘Time is Money’ in The Telegraph.