The Enclosure of Free Time in the Digital Society


25 February 2022

There is a pervasive paradox characteristic of the present century, where despite the conveniences brought about by digital technologies, we find ourselves with less free time than ever before. Coupled with general exhaustion and an inability to “keep up”, it’s a phenomenon that has been observed by pop culture and academia alike.

Examples found in academia include Robert Hassan and Ronald E. Purser’s anthology on time in the network society, which cites sociologist Juliet Schor’s 1993 book about workers in the United States being “starved for time”, and that society as a whole is what she calls “time-squeezed”. [1] In more recent publications, Geert Lovink’s Sad by Design offers several examples of how the age of social media has led to endless hours spent on unfulfilling activities, leading to what he appropriately terms  “Platform nihilism”. [2] Relatedly, in Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s 2017 book Futurability, the new proletarian class that emerges due to the mass implementation of new technologies is described as “deprived of their communities, divested of solidarity, stripped of leisure time and obliged to sustain fatigue, stress and competition.” [3]

From this point of departure, this paper considers how a new social class has evolved in the wake of digital technology by drawing parallels between what might be considered an “enclosure of time” and the historical enclosure of land, or space, during the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Medieval Europe. Beginning with Feudalism and outlining what Karl Marx terms the “historical preconditions” that allowed for the shift towards capitalism, I look to Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch for an account of the violence and bloodshed it necessitated, which provides an overview of how the common land that was an important resource for women and peasants in Medieval Europe was privatised through the act of hedging in order to create the English Enclosures. [4]

Whilst far from egalitarian, with frequent uprisings occurring, there existed both privately owned and common land during feudalism. “With the use of land also came the use of the ‘commons’ – meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures – that provided crucial resources for the peasant economy… and fostered community cohesion and cooperation.” [5]  But in the centuries during which capitalism began taking hold, public land and the commons were enclosed upon, erasing a valuable resource for the most vulnerable. Geographer Nicholas Blomley also speaks to the impact of enclosures: “While enclosure was a long-standing rural practice, it began to take on a qualitatively different scale and scope. Not only did the pace of enclosure, in many parts of England, begin to accelerate, but also it was often undertaken without agreement.” [6]

Fast forward to the present day, and whilst capitalism remains the dominant global economic system, technology has made our lives unrecognisable in contrast to the industrial economies of previous centuries. The companies included under the heading of Big Tech have an unprecedented amount of control and data, which was accumulated in a few short years. With such a drastic change from previous ways that the financial economy operated, I question the preconditions for setting the stage for the amount of control afforded to Big Tech.

Media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun writes that internet technology necessitates constant updates in order to survive, enlisting change in its very being. By its very infrastructure, in order to remain “online”, a computer must send out and receive information constantly. [7] In order to substantiate the network, change must occur, thus rendering a temporality in its design.

So, if the internet, at least in the age of social media and platforms, presupposes time, then how might we understand our sudden loss of time in the transition towards these platforms, their eventual monopolisation of the market and indeed our everyday?

In the creeping ubiquity of the internet, a new type of market began to dominate, shifting from manufacturing products to the production of Content. In his book Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek explains that “the traditional industrial working class is increasingly replaced by knowledge workers or the ‘cognitariat’.” [8] The platforms of Web 2.0 run on data, a departure from traditional manufacturing and markets that instead allows companies to create and alter products based on the data they’ve gathered about consumers and the extended world.

This is alarming for the following reasons. Such companies require users to spend more time on their platforms in order to extract data. They implement measures to ensure they keep scrolling, essentially using their data against them and their free time. On the other side of the coin, certain possibilities are precluded with the data extracted. There is a stark difference between data and knowledge, whereby data is information that something happened, in contrast to knowledge, which is information on why something happened [9]. This invokes the oppositions of correlation vs causation, where this favouring of correlation in data analytics has led to many mishaps in everything from consumerism to policing. Less possible outcomes mean an easier future to prepare for and therefore control. Thus, it’s in the interest of growth and profit to rely on this type of data-driven market.

Time, then, is being chipped away at both ends. Time, in essence, is enclosed, with the free time of our present being taken away whilst the possibilities of the future are curbed, for the sake of accumulating and extracting more data.

This enclosure of time reflects the enclosure and privatisation of land and subsequent accumulation of capital. We might therefore consider the data-focused accumulation and loss of time to be a precondition to a new phase of capitalism and a precondition to new ways of control.

The two accounts of enclosure offer several parallels. These include a mind-body duality that can be drawn from the cognitive workers of the present and the labourers using their bodies for industrial work in previous economies, whereby the enclosure of time may be analogised as the enslavement of the mind. Another parallel is the perpetuation of differences: internet changed from a network that flattens hierarchies to a tool of surveillance and control. mirroring the ways in which the medieval enclosure of land exacerbated inequality. Other parallels include how the rental economy for products like software has replaced the old model of ownership, similar to how land is rented out and not owned. The worker, in this case, doesn’t own the means of their production, reflecting the plight of the working class after the introduction of capitalism.

If our free time is being systematically enclosed with the advent of digital platforms in the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, what can we expect in the next wave of digital innovation? What will Web 3 and the metaverse bring us? It seems that the system will continue to be reproduced with whatever new technologies are at our disposal, and with it, a reproduction of the issues previously faced, unless there is a systemic overhaul wherein the internet, or perhaps specific platforms, are democratised and publicly owned.


25 February 2022

Contributed by

Sandy Di Yu is a UK-based artist, writer, and PhD researcher in Digital Media at the University of Sussex. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, the University of London and a BFA in Visual Arts and Philosophy from York University in Toronto, Canada.

Contributed as part of Symposium: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society

Works Cited

[1] Hassan, Robert, and Ronald E. Purser. 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society. Stanford Business Books, 2007, Page 3.

[2] Lovink, Geert. Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism. Pluto Press, 2019.

[3] Berardi, Franco. Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility. Verso, 2019, page 48.

[4] Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Penguin Books, 2021.

[5] Ibid, page 24.

[6] Blomley, Nicholas. “Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges.” Rural History, vol. 18, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–21.,

[7] Kyong, Chun Wendy Hui. Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. The MIT Press, 2017.

[8] Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism. Polity, 2020, page 38.

[9] Ibid, page 39.