A brief piece on time, industry, and the self.

I have a Patreon, here, where you can subscribe to support my security and systems-focused writing.  You sign up for a fixed amount per essay (with an optional monthly cap), and you'll be notified every time I publish something new.  At higher support levels, you'll get early access, a chance to get in-depth answers to your questions, and even for more general consulting time. is me.  Along with writing, I consult, give talks, make art, take photographs, and work on a number of public projects.  You can hire me to do all of these things.

© 2021 Eleanor Saitta.

RSS Feed for essays and talks

Return to All Essays

In Gerald Raunig's chapter “Island Industries” in Factories of Knowledge / Islands of Creativity, he talks about the original meaning of the Latin industria as being closer to the current English meaning of "industrious" than anything that we currently think of as being related to "industry".  Viewing the industrial revolution in this light changes one's basic understanding of what actually happened.  The industrial revolution wasn't the mills and the chimneys, it was the work on the self that happened first.

The 14th and 15th centuries saw the rise of the Venetian merchant families and the birth of the corporation as a distinct entity, originally for time-limited management of specific operations.  As operations expanded with single entities (whether familial or body corporate) running many ships or trading caravans (and aided by increasingly sophisticated monetary instruments), a management class appeared within trading operations, distinct from either simple merchants or the rulers of land.

The word “factory” originally meant a permanent trading outpost run by some trading company.  This post was run by a factor (Latin “he who does”) who had permission to engage in trades on behalf of the company.  Along with the increasingly busy professional judiciary of the lex mercatoria and the growing body of canon and civil lawyers, these men became a class accountable not merely for their output season over season but for their activity on a day to day basis.  They were in a position to improve their standing on the basis of that activity, moment to moment, compounding over time like interest.

This ethic expanded across social classes, spreading with the Reformation and the mercantile revolution.  This even came with new modes of manners befitting the middle classes, the manners of the shopkeeper who must through effort please his customers and retain their custom, not those either the lord who may simply command or take recourse in force of arms nor of the peasant community aware that they will all starve or flourish together, making pleasantry irrelevant.

This was the beginning of truly secular work on the self.  Religious work on the self, as piety, was well-established, as was philosophical work on the self, of reading the classics and receiving the education that would eventually beget the Grand Tour.  This was work on the self entirely within the world, and it was centered on time and the rhythm of life.

Instead of the rhythm of the farmer, up with the dawn and to bed just after dark, it was the rhythm of waking for the beginning of a trading day and working long into the night — the rhythm of the candle or the oil lamp.  As technology advanced, it was this rhythm that begat shift work and then Taylorism, pushing the commodification of time into the world.  Technologically, this tied in (and likely drove in-part) a shift in the keeping of time as accurate clocks proliferated.

By the 17th century, this shift had spread into the peasantry, in what was known as the Industrious Revolution, which while it also shifted patterns of consumption, was primarily about a changing notion of time.  Over the following four hundred years, much of morality tied back at one level or another to industry, how one spent ones time and money.

The past ten fifteen years have been called the “industrial revolution of the Internet”, the equivalent of the Enclosures Act bringing the Internet under the sway of the stacks — Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft.  Within that, though, we see another revolution happening in the advertising-centric production of value online that has led to the socialization of capital.  Here, what was previously merely “social capital”, a measure of compounded industriousness as social standing has become more literally and directly entangled with real capital, real money.

The same industrial Internet has aided, abetted, intermediated, and in some cases driven the precaritization of work where individual labor time has become more and more fragmented.  Instead of operating in a context where one was accountable for one's labor time but paid in a relatively conventional manner, one is only paid for labor time with no guarantees of continuity; rhythm compressed and fragmented, a career in an afternoon.

Through all this, the work on the self continues and increases.  In precarity, the product one produces is one's self.  All of this happens in the context of an industrious Internet.  It's worth noting here that among other things, the Internet is a large, multiple, and previously unthinkably accurate clock.  Every single one of the tens of billions of computers connected to the Internet keeps time, ticking as close to as possible in unison, microsecond by microsecond.

Eleanor Saitta
9 July, 2013
San Francisco, California