J.G. Ballard: Chronopolis – Time Cities and the Lost Future


Continuing from where I left off J.G. Ballard: Chrontopia and Post-Consumerist Society.

Ballard in his short story Chronopolis will envision a world where Time as Clock-time has been outlawed. In this short story he takes us through the history of one particular Time-City, Chronopolis where every facet of peoples existence was ruled by time and its measurements. We first meet Conrad Newman in the free worlds beyond the great and ruinous Time City, who is awaiting trial for his criminal heresies: he has brought the great central clock, the symbol of absolute regulatory control back online.

We discover from a friend of his Stacey that

‘Thirty million people once lived in this city,’ Stacey remarked. ‘Now the population is little more than two, and still declining. Those of us left hang on in what were once the distal suburbs, so that the city today is effectively an enormous ring, five miles in width, encircling a vast dead centre forty or fifty miles in diameter.’1

As Stacy drives Newman around the Time City now in various stages of ruination he tells him it has been thirty-seven years to the day since the great central clock upon which all other clocks were synchronized stopped at 12:01 exactly. Conrad Newman is so taken with the beauty of this now dusty and ruinous city that when he comes upon an architectural landscape of buildings that seem so pristine and perfect he asks:

‘It’s impressive, all right. The people who lived here must have been giants. What’s really remarkable is that it looks as if they left only yesterday. Why don’t we go back?’ ‘Well, apart from the fact that there aren’t enough of us now, even if there were we couldn’t control it. In its hey-day this city was a fantastically complex social organism. The communications problems are difficult to imagine merely by looking at these blank façades. It’s the tragedy of this city that there appeared to be only one way to solve them.’ (Ballard, p. 159)

Conrad will ask how they solved the issue of travel, communication, etc. Stacy tells him that the solution came about by the simple notion of leaving themselves out of the equation:

‘Did they solve them?’ ‘Oh, yes, certainly. But they left themselves out of the equation. Think of the problems, though. Transporting fifteen million office workers to and from the centre every day, routeing in an endless stream of cars, buses, trains, helicopters, linking every office, almost every desk, with a videophone, every apartment with television, radio, power, water, feeding and entertaining this enormous number of people, guarding them with ancillary services, police, fire squads, medical units – it all hinged on one factor.’ (Ballard, p. 159)

What was the factor? Stacey will tell him:

‘Time! Only by synchronizing every activity, every footstep forward or backward, every meal, bus-halt and telephone call, could the organism support itself. Like the cells in your body, which proliferate into mortal cancers if allowed to grow in freedom, every individual here had to subserve the overriding needs of the city or fatal bottlenecks threw it into total chaos. You and I can turn on the tap any hour of the day or night, because we have our own private water cisterns, but what would happen here if everybody washed the breakfast dishes within the same ten minutes?’ (Ballard, p. 159)

Conrad will discover that the in the Time City every man, woman, and child was regulated moment by moment by time, by the intervals in each second, minute, hour down to even the time allotted for sleep, eating, speaking, making love, playing with their children. It was also based on a sophisticated set of color codes and decodings:

‘There were a dozen socio-economic categories: blue for executives, gold for professional classes, yellow for military and government officials – incidentally, it’s odd your parents ever got hold of that wristwatch, none of your family ever worked for the government – green for manual workers and so on. But, naturally, subtle subdivisions were possible. The lower-grade executive I mentioned left his office at 12, but a senior executive, with exactly the same time codes, would leave at 11.45, have an extra fifteen minutes, would find the streets clear before the lunch-hour rush of clerical workers.’ (Ballard, p. 161)

After a thorough visit through the Time City Conrad will come to the center and see the great clock itself, asking:

‘Why did it stop?’ he asked. Stacey looked at him curiously. ‘Haven’t I made it fairly plain?’

Scarcity. The highly regulated and over organized populace was bound to resource scarcity, and the only way they could all share in its wealth was through absolute command and control of the resources, of which they were both victims and rulers. The whole point is recursitivity: the insertion of the human agent back into the Time Loop of the Regulatory System. Without this massive regulation of the human agent within the technological system that kept the running in perfect stasis: a negentropic machine, a perpetual motion machine bound to the cycles and rhythms not of organic life but of Time itself and its endless cycles or regulation and mathematic surplus the whole system would break down and dissolve.

As Stacy comes to the end of his story he explains to Conrad that there came a time when people rebelled:

‘Eventually, of course, revolt came. It’s interesting that in any industrial society there is usually one social revolution each century, and that successive revolutions receive their impetus from progressively higher social levels. In the eighteenth century it was the urban proletariat, in the nineteenth the artisan classes, in this revolt the white collar office worker, living in his tiny so-called modern flat, supporting through credit pyramids an economic system that denied him all freedom of will or personality, chained him to a thousand clocks . . .’ (Ballard, p. 162)

What’s humorous in this is that the metaphor itself: “revolution” is bound to natural cyclic time systems: late 14c., originally of celestial bodies, from Old French revolucion “course, revolution (of celestial bodies)” (13c.), or directly from Late Latin revolutionem (nominative revolutio) “a revolving,” noun of action from past participle stem of Latin revolvere “turn, roll back”. The sense that one could roll back time, return to some previous time, a time of pure time before Time as clock-time began its merciless regulatory infestation. But why have we been bound to periodic revolutions or roll-backs? Is the pressure of this regulatory system of a hypercapitalist technotopia acting like the clock mechanism itself? Does it from time to time need to be rewound? A new winding, a rejuvenation and resetting of its basic mechanisms to zero: a sort of festival of the Null Point, an Omega point of return and turning that escapes the boundaries of actual Time. A release from the strict rules of time-bound regulation? In this sense the time-between-times when societies held carnivals and topsy-turvy reversals of roles, when leaders stepped down and clowns became Kings? (Think of Vico, Joyce, Norman O. Brown….)


Smart Cities

Think on this: Are we not now building the infrastructure for such a computational world of regulated bodies, a cognitariat that is nothing more than a mere machine, a member of the machinic phylum connected and plugged in to the intensive networks of a Time City that regulates every aspect of their existence in work and play. With the various Smart City initiatives around the planet which are only models of the future, rather than the future itself, or we not seeing the instigation of a 24/7 Society based on total temporal command and control. One that eventually will replace humans with robots and advanced AI?

Listen to this blurb for a Sino-Singapore Smart City of the Future:

Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City (SSGKC) will be a Smart City, integrating urban management systems, powered by leading information and telecommunication technologies which will drive sustainable economic growth, a high quality of life, and effective management of natural resources. … The Smart City will also provide an excellent test bed for leading edge technologies. SSGKC will exploit Next Generation Information and Communication Technology (ICT), cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to develop a world class city where residents can live and work in a safe, efficient and resource-efficient environment. The government administration will leverage on ICT technology to optimise the services delivery to residents and enterprises.

You will notice the phrasing: “safe”, “efficient”, “resource-efficient environment”, “leverage”, “optimize”, “services”… etc. The notion of ICT technologies as the new underpinning of this whole enterprise system and its society. And, above all, “government administration”: the top-down command and control of every facet of this world for you, an invisible network of administrators all attuned to providing you an information rich environment filled with the latest technologies, entertainment, 24/7 onlife paradise. What else would you need? – One wonders where murder and mayhem play into this new technological paradise? The breakdown between public and  private, the boundaries of the individual will dissolve since security will prevail: safety-first, the ultimate in sociality… the new citizen as a networked netizen or Inforg (Informational Organism) whose life and mind is never private, but always connected to the Grid.

I kept thinking of my first visit to Disneyland as a child. My visit to Tomorrowland with all its gadgets, wonders, technological advances, etc. Then I look back at what it offered in some of the pictures in a book on that period, and how unrealistic their expectations were during the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s as if these companies truly want us to build new City States where the nouveau riche, the cognitariat and elite corporate executives will live their lives out in a Disneyfied technological environment of pure bliss and creativity. Technological sublime in its extreme mode of Utopian expectation.

Like many things that the great corporate think tanks, global banks, national and international regimes buy into is this notion of a technological imperative: as if technology will be the solution to their most pressing problems. And, for most advanced hypercapitalist societies and economies its about how to control the populace in such a way to gain every last drop of work and profit it can from them. As for the excluded and the non-workers? Their just shadow figures in a deflationary economics of scarcity, part of the drift of expendables and trash stocks that go without being said.

Yet, as such grand schemes for InfoSpheric cities becomes an options we should listen to some of the designers and engineers, such as Adam Greenfield, who in Against the smart city tells us – speaking of the various problems that the new technology faces:

There’s just no such thing as “an” interactive smart wall or “an” iris-recognition system, any more than there is “a” bike-sharing scheme or personal rapid-transit network. What do exist in the world are specific deployments of components from specific vendors, laminated together as particular propositions, and each of these may differ profoundly from other, similar propositions, along all of the axes that condition human interaction with them. It’s all but impossible to fairly evaluate claims about the performance of systems like these without knowing just what it is that’s being suggested. Information-technological components may certainly be modular and interoperable, in other words, but the systems built from them are not at all fungible.2


“Several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service… The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems. – Siemens”

As Greenfield will suggest companies like Siemens, IBM, Cisco, and various other Smart City proponents are gearing up the hype and transitioning their core philosophical and corporate policies toward fulfilling this promise:

What we encounter in this statement is an unreconstructed logical positivism, which, among other things, implicitly holds that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in the state of a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, it is effectively an argument there is one and only one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something which can be encoded in public policy, again without distortion. (Greenfield, KL 442)

Greenfield will tell us that underpinning the basic assumption of most of the grand narratives and corporate hype is a specific hypothesis about both the future and human behavior. The first deals with the notion of complexity itself. Most of these companies reason that contemporary urban environment is so complex and so vexatious in its demands that no group of ordinary, unaided human beings can hope to understand it, let alone manage it wisely. Therefore the new Intelligent InfoSphere will need a new class of intelligent workers to maintain and reliably oversee the smooth operation of the systems, while at the same time enforcing the rules and regulations that bind the InfoSphere citizens to its regulatory system. Next will be the truth that the cognitariat and elite themselves cannot be entrusted with this task. As he states it:

 Though it’s garbed for the moment in the seductive language of efficiency, agility and sustainability, we might as well call that current for what it is: the impulse toward authoritarianism, and the will to control over other human beings. This impulse is something that springs eternal in the human heart, no matter what language or technology it is couched in. It can be suppressed or defanged locally and temporarily, but it will surely burst forth again in a different guise, in a different time and place. The smart city happens to be the aspect in which we confront it in our time. (Greenfield, 1451)

So already the bottom line is these cities of the future will have as their founding principles a set of in-built perimeters based on command and control of both the Smart City itself as a system, and of the populace that presides and uses its services. As one ethicist will admit this world has been slow in coming but is speeding up, accelerating toward a future that is shaping and colonizing us through the hypermediation of advertising, corporate pressure, political and social disruption and chaos, setting the stage for our migration to a fully secured electronic paradise that will offer us every material advantage. The only thing it will ask of us is that we give up our freedom. As Floridia will state it ICTs are as much re-ontologizing our world as they are creating new realities. The threshold between here (analogue, carbon-based, offline) and there (digital, silicon-based, online) is fast becoming blurred, but this is as much to the advantage of the latter as it is to the former. Adapting Horace’s famous phrase, ‘captive infosphere is conquering its victor’, the digital-online is spilling over into the analogue-offline and merging with it. This recent phenomenon is variously known as ‘Ubiquitous Computing’, ‘Ambient Intelligence’, ‘The Internet of Things’, or ‘Web-augmented Things’. I prefer to refer to it as the onlife experience. It is, or will soon be, the next stage in the development of the information age. With a slogan: hyperhistory happens onlife.3

For Floridi the greatest problem is the coming informational divide: the bifurcation between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information rich and information poor. It will redesign the map of worldwide society, generating or widening generational, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural divides. Yet the gap will not be reducible to the distance between rich and poor countries, since it will cut across societies. Pre-historical cultures have virtually disappeared, with the exception of some small tribes in remote corners of the world. The new divide will be between historical and hyperhistorical ones. We might be preparing the ground for tomorrow’s informational slums. (The Ethics of Information, p. 9)

Ballard for his part leaves us with time ticking in his anti-hero’s ear. His smart city, the time city, with its fully regulated codifications of life bound to its central clock against which the Order of Domination it objectified has become the symbol of the failed and lost future, a liminal zone of horror and static ruination teasing us with its perfect symmetries and angular worlds of light and sun. As Conrad is sitting in his cubicle he begins to chuckle as he realizes there is clock in his prison cell (one of the officers will tell him that they had to reinstall them to help the prisoners from going totally insane). After two weeks in isolation in this cell we hear Conrad “still chuckling over the absurdity of it all … later … he noticed the clock’s insanely irritating tick . . .” (Ballard, p. 168)

As our masters continue to build the great future pyramids of the new millennial cities of the coming Global InfoSphere let us be reminded of that “irritating tick…”. Tick toc, tick toc, tick toc….

1, Ballard, J. G. (2012-06-01). The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 156). Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. Greenfield, Adam (2013-12-20). Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use) (Kindle Locations 412-417). Do projects. Kindle Edition.
3. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 8). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “J.G. Ballard: Chronopolis – Time Cities and the Lost Future

  1. I think one of the main issues is the inability to be able to opt out (which is a kind of peaceful protest/a bargaining proposition) by growing ones own food supply. At the very least to have the land to grow food (ie, to have land that a gang in blue wont drive you off of) you need to be plugged into the system – ie, to have money. And not just a dollar or two, but significant sums of money.

    Of course some depict a history where the idea was to drive landholders off their land so as to force labour out of them less by using force (because force costs money!) and more by sheer lack of alternative: http://mutualist.org/id4.html

    Liked by 1 person

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