Our world has easily observed year, month and day cycles. They and their multiples, such as decades or weeks, and fractions, such as seasons, hours, minutes, and seconds are easily available and used to synchronize and measure events. Seasons and daylight make timing actions highly important activity as well since the earliest times. Most animals and even plants actually have biological clocks.

But few recent questions have been about worlds without such easily observed cycles. This includes constant daylight and no seasonal variations.

Most answers focused on alternate ways of measuring time or synchronizing actions. But I got to thinking...

What if instead society responded to the lack of external events allowing and requiring synchronization by simply going asynchronous. With computers we use, depending on need and circumstance, both synchronous and asynchronous protocols. Our society also uses both, but synchronous approaches tend to dominate especially in modern times when cheap and accurate clocks are available. Less modernized cultures were more laissez-faire about exact schedules and work hours.

A society without days or seasons would probably go the opposite way than we have. Since measuring and determining time would be more difficult and less critical, they'd probably avoid it as much as possible.

But how much of it is possible to avoid? Can a society be wholly asynchronous and avoid entirely the need to measure time? If no, why not? If yes, how would such society work? Would the answer vary based on level of technology?

You can assume full biological adaptation by people, animals, and plants.


type_outcast pointed that heart beats would still allow and supply a measure of time at short time scales. This would naturally extend to things such as music and poetry having beat and tempo, and the length of recitation or song providing a way to estimate lengths of time. Further this would then naturally be extended to using pendulums and mechanical clocks.

I don't really see any reason why the people would not do this or why I or anyone else should assume they won't. What the question is about is the social protocols people would use without the larger structure of years and days and without a convenient source of assumed synchronicity. There is no need to assume they would be unable to measure periods of time.

This would imply that after mechanical clocks become accurate they would have ability to synchronize things if they chose to. But let's just ignore that since it is the solutions they'd have developed before that that are interesting. And in any case they'd still not organize around days or years, so I'd assume the old ways would still be better.

EDIT 2: Adding a link to comment by slebetman in one of the answers about just-in-time processes and Toyota way. I should have mentioned all that in the question from the beginning, but it didn't occur to me. However it is a very good illustration of the kind of use of asynchronous protocols I am talking about. (Ignore the fact that in our world synchronous parts are necessary at the interfaces.)

  • $\begingroup$ Are you interested in answers which explore the blurry line between synchronous and asynchronous? Building up a society around a planet without any synchronous activity could be an interesting trick without dabbling in the blurry line. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ Can you clarify what you mean by synchronicity according to @CortAmmon's comment? $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Sorry, I thought the explicit reference to asynchronous protocols was enough. Probably because that is where I started thinking about this. So yes even without measured time they'd have social protocols that would allow concepts such as ordering things by priority or anything, having sequences of things, doing things in response to something. This is quite sufficient for communication and organization. Most internet protocols (not all) are asynchronous since requiring nodes on different locations to agree on time would add lots of overhead. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 22:05

6 Answers 6


Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

Before I get into the meat of my answer, a quick word on periodic time: I believe that we would still develop and use "synchronous" timekeeping methods, since even without obvious days, seasons, etc., we would still have other obvious cyclical things all around us, such as life and death. For example, humanity has been measuring timescales in "generations" for at least as long as recorded history. I can measure time to within a few hours just by feeling the stubble on my chin. Seconds roughly map to heartbeats. And so on. More technological societies would develop atomic theory, and figure out, as we did, that radioactive decay is very regular.

Your question specifically asked us to assume the opposite, which I will of course now do, but I thought it important to address a few of the other obvious synchronous time sources around us to properly frame this answer.

How hard is it to avoid?

This is hard to answer, but given the ubiquity of things like life and death, it's hard to imagine us not being at least aware of periodic timescales. To avoid using them, I think, would require some conscious societal decisions that asynchronicity is somehow superior, such as (possibly) allowing for more efficient work schedules and so forth:

Work schedules

As opposed to simply lassiez-faire schedules, such as sleeping in one day, and getting up early the next, asynchronous work schedules (without circadian rhythms!) would be rather different. I imagine people will work when they're able, stop when they're tired, and then somehow signal their relief shift to start. When there are multiple "relief" people available, it might take some additional organization to set up some kind of priority queue based availability, and so forth.

Wages would have to be job- or project-based, given the lack of hourly/daily/monthly rates.


Assuming we would un-evolve (or never develop) our circadian rhythms that slow us down and help to make us sleepy, we'd simply sleep when we're tired, and get up when we're hungry, thirsty, stiff and sore, or someone tells us to. Along those lines, we'd eat when we're hungry, drink when we're thirsty, and so on.


The concept of going to school for n years would be foreign. Students would start school when they learned to develop minimum basic skills, such as basic counting or alphabet, and they'd progress in school based on merit. "School years" as such wouldn't exist, but teachers would still have a curriculum, and at the end of that, students would be tested and would either pass and advance, or fail and repeat, which isn't too different from most of our current systems.

Legal system

Custodial sentences would differ, given the concept of "25 years to life" would be foreign. Life sentences would still be possible, of course, but lesser sentences would have to be based on something else, such as rehabilitation (meritorious, perhaps similar to our parole hearings), or completion of a sentenced quantity of prison labor. (Write "I will not steal cars" on a chalkboard a million times or so.) One might actually see fewer custodial sentences in favor of other forms of punishment such as fines, exile, or (hopefully just in the old days), torture.

Also in the legal vein, "legal age" would have no real meaning. While crimes involving minors (such as statutory rape) would probably still exist, the definition of "minor" would have to be based on something other than chronological age. The courts might employ medical and psychological specialists to evaluate someone's mental and biological development, or some other external reference would be used, such as whether the person had completed their secondary education ("high school") or not. That would be imprecise by our definition, as some people might take longer than others, but it could also be argued that it would be more accurate, as those who develop more slowly ought to be considered minors for longer.


You say plants would adapt, so without seasons, there would be no growing season, so at first people would plant a crop, harvest when it's ripe, and re-plant immediately. Eventually they would realize that the soil needs time to regain nutrients, and would adapt, just as we have.


Scientists would almost certainly use periodic time in their work, despite the society's collective abhorrence of such things. It's already common for scientists to refer to quantities differently than ordinary folk; for example, you don't see the weather report on the evening news using Kelvin, or cars that go 30 m/sec. In fact, science needs more precise timescales, to develop things such as the physical mechanics of velocity, acceleration, energy, radioactive decay measurements, and so on.

Our own "second" is (since 1967) based on the radioactive decay of Cesium-133, so scientists might eventually come to use such a scale (or something simpler, like pendulum motion) to aid them in their work. A lot of science wouldn't be possible (or wouldn't be right) without a linear concept of time, but that doesn't mean scientific timescales would make their way into society.

Other thoughts

This is an interesting question. As I mentioned, it seems likely that a society would choose to use asynchronous or aperiodic methods, as periodicity is all around us. Thus it would be interesting to explore the philosophy and sociology of such a decision, but I fear that's a topic for another question!

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure people without seasons would see life and death as cyclical. We see it such by analogy to seasons, I think. Good point with heart beats though. They would have an easy way of estimating short periods so no reason not to. I think I'll amend the question. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ +1, Well, for the reasons to life asynchronous: Maybe because people realize it's healthier to listen to your inner clock, instead of the clock of your boss. As everyone has different times where he/she sleeps the best, this would be more convienient for everyone. And eating when you're hungry and not when society is expecting it from you is something I do for quite a time now ;) $\endgroup$
    – Bounce
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 8:55

Schedules suck. I mean it. They ostensibly bring order and design into our lives, but they end up creating unnecessary rigidity. There are a few of us who have, for better or for worse, decided to go against using schedules. A good example is a newborn baby. Mom and Dad might want to tuck in around ten o'clock and wake up at six-ish, but the baby will decided when and where it wants to wake up, nap, relieve itself, etc. It does things when it wants to.

In this sense, the baby may be smarter than its parents. Why should I get up at six in the morning and go to school if I'm overly tired, or leave around three because that's when we get kicked out of the building? On these days, I could just as easily go wake up at eight, get in by ten and be out by five. I would function really well. The baby may not know this, but it acts accordingly subconsciously.

If society behaved like this, then at first there would be issues. Continuing the school example, some students might want to wake up at five, and some might want to wake up at eleven. That clearly creates a problem, one of synchronization, which we have to get rid of here. But why is this a problem? It's that we have to interact with other people, for better or for worse. According to the rules we set down, I have to walk into a room at X time, where I will then be greeted by an overly perky person with a cheery smile. We do this because we have to work together, even though in many cases this will clearly turn out worse for one of us (me, in most cases. I'm not a morning person!).

The society would behave like the baby, acting on what I'll call the Principle of Selfish Convenience, which we can view as a short-sighted member of society trying to reach Cournot equilibrium. Without a natural cycle, there is no need for them to do things that are not important at the moment. Instead, they look for short-term needs. Each person has to do Y things to keep living, and they'll each do them according to when it benefits them. Without some method of keeping time, they'll have to develop a mentality seemingly alien to us. If we were to create some sort of an algorithm to describe this, it would run accordingly:

  1. What tasks do I have to do within a short period of time to stay alive? Returns a list of Z things.
  2. Which of these things should be done first for me to stay alive? Reorders list.
  3. I do the most important thing on that list. Goes back to step 1.

This method has the advantage that the person will do what it needs to do most at the moment. The downside is accidental procrastination. You could put off washing laundry for our equivalent of a month if other things are deemed "most important". But eventually the deadline would come closer, and soon laundry would become the most important task. This is the Principle of Selfish Convenience, and most of the time, it will turn out well.

The one thing the Principle fails at is interactions with other people. If Person A and Person B keep doing things in a selfish order, and they each have to meet each other, then they may end up never meeting each other, if a window of opportunity passes. This will create a problem. Therefore, some aspect of synchronicity must be present in a society.

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    $\begingroup$ I think there might be an "out" here. You suggest that the principle of selfish convenience fails at is interactions, yet if you think about it, there's quite a lot of interactions in biology that operate under these rules yet interact fluidly. The trick is that they are better at knowing what they actually want and need. Consider the example of heart muscles which reflexively contract if a nearby muscle contracts. In the case of the heart, there is a pacemaker giving orders, but for the vast volume of the heart muscle, the process is quite asynchronous. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon So if I understand you, the "out" is that it's possible to work together at the same time and achieve a common goal without direct communication? $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ Actually the concept of rigid hours developed during industrialization, where it was essential (an assembly line only works if all the workers are there at the same time to do their job; remove one, and the whole production stands still). $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ There is communication in asynchronous computing, there is just not a clock driving synchronicity. This might actually be a clarification to the question. From what I understand of the computing definitions, the defining characteristic of synchronous interaction with reference to "cycles" is that synchronous means you "know" what the other side is doing, simply by looking at your own internal clocks. Asynchronous communication assumes nothing until the moment a communication arrives. If you're working from a different meaning, then maybe thats a sign Ville may need to clarify the question. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ " You could put off washing laundry for our equivalent of a month if other things are deemed important"" doesn't that happen anyway? Do people generally schedule a regular laundry time and follow an appointment time for that? I thought not. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 7:09

You will organize by using queues. That goes in the same direction as HDE answer.

For example, if you are running low on food, just go gather some. It is possible because there is no season, therefore no long period when there is nothing to eat out there (aka winter). No need to stockpile then.

Well can the queuing solution generalize to any problem ? Almost.


You can adapt the work schedule easily, just run your factory constantly (in the case you need a lot of people to work at the same time). Workers will wait to work, and when a place is freed (by someone going away), the next in queue can take his place. Each worker are then paid by shift.

Of course that would be administratively heavy (you have to take care of how much each worker did), but not impossible.

Then of course system will need to be achieve for qualified workers. For example a kind of VIP queue for better qualified workers, that allow them to get to work faster, and so ensure the factory to get more of them working.

Note that you need a queue in the case of a factory, because you need lots of people simultaneously to make it run, but at the same time you can not make them all come at the same time. If there is no queue, you risk lacking workers.

That also means that if there is only few people capable of doing some stuff they just basically work when they want (what could also be true in our society).

An interesting effect is that it is hard bind someone by contract to do something for you. In fact, you can bind someone to do something, but since you can not give deadline, it is not de facto binding. Formulations like "as soon as possible" should be expected, as well as major lawsuit about the concept.

So a working contract would be more of an exclusivity contract (you accept to only work for that guy).


Interesting as well. Instead of having classes, you would rather have lots of modules. You go to a module when you want (it is just run in continuous), and when you think you can go to the following module, you ask to pass an exam.

Once again there might be some queuing, since you may need to wait for your teacher to come, or a sufficiently high amount of students to come for the module to start.

Since it would require lots of teachers, you might use the "students teaching students" approach, having students of higher module teaching students of lesser ones to discharge your teacher. Note that such education system kind of actually existed !

So you may think that everything will be fine, it seems that everything can be generalize by just queuing people. The waiting time may even not be a problem, since the society would basically be founded on waiting.

But there is a problem. And it is...

Travel (and wage war)

When you travel, for example through an ocean or a desert, you need to know how much food you need for the duration of the travel, and if the food you take with you will rot before you got to somewhere you can get more. Without proper duration estimation, any travel would become a very dangerous thing.

Also, a war is the travel of lots of people killing other people who does not want them to travel there. It is the worst definition of war ever, but you get the idea. If you measure time properly, you will most likely get a significant military advantage over populations who do not.

If one civilization measure the time, and the other not, it is likely that its planning will be far better, and that it may expand quickly.

So either you need to have an absolute pacific species, or you need to clearly separate the military from the rest of the society if you want an asynchronous society to work.

Also prepare for conversation like :

"Will we have enough food to get there ?" "More or less."

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure it would be administratively heavy. It seems that way because there is a mismatch between the way businesses are run and your suggestion of organizing the work. But the way business is organized evolves over time to optimize administrative efficiency, so what you really are suggesting is that business should also be organized differently. No suggestion how other than "In a way that is more efficient in administering work using queue system." One obvious improvement is that there would be secondary work to perform while waiting for higher priority work. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ As for travel. I do not think there would be an issue. We estimate the time something takes by thinking about the route, its length and difficulty and then converting that to time. We can just as easily convert it directly into the amount of provisions needed. Probably even in our world people often skipped actually estimating the time on trips they have done before and just base provisions on what they have needed before. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ During war travel times are unpredictable, most generals neglected to inform their opponents of their plans and troop locations in advance. So a typical issue would be scouts or some other information source giving you information on enemy action and you needing to estimate if you can reach a point before the enemy by sufficient margin. You can get that if you know the relative distances and speeds. That is what you would use to estimate the needed times anyway. Skipping the conversion to time wouldn't really make a difference. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 0:25
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi: A lot of businesses are already organized to use a queue system. The most prominent users are supermarkets and fast-food outlets. They don't have much storage in-situ so they optimize their ordering system based on a daily priority queue (OK, I admit that there still is a "daily" cycle, but that can just be any arbitrary time period like 20 hours or 30 hours etc.)... $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ ... This practice is known as "just-in-time" and according to Agile legend it started when a group of Japanese delegates visited New York during the construction of the Empire State building (New York, during the construction, did not have enough space to host all the building materials so engineers had to bring supplies exactly when they were needed, hourly, by truck). Japanese businesses took the lesson to heart and started minimizing on-site storage. Toyota took the practice to the assembly line. Agile programmers later re-learned the same lesson in the late 90s. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 3:11

In order to answer your question, I think we need to ask ourselves whether or not a true "society" would be able to develop within an asynchronous environment.

Let me explain:

It is a widely accepted fact that in order for an intelligent being (which I am assuming includes the members of the society in question) to develop to their fullest potential, they MUST interact with other intelligent beings, thus mediating informational exchange across multiple individuals. In order for said exchange to take place on a regular basis, these individuals would need to be synchronized both in time and within a shared language or other medium of informational exchange.Without these interactions, it is also likely that each member of the "society" would become increasingly independent from all other members to the point that almost no interaction would ever take place between them. If this state persisted, a true "society" would never form, leaving instead a group of socially-distant individuals whom would never be able to interact, cooperate, or progress much beyond their initial state of total individuality.

Fortunately, the chances that a truly asynchronous society would form in the first place is highly unlikely, as the conditions required for such a society to form are extremely specific. It is almost impossible to create a truly asynchronous environment. The natural world as we know our seems to have a relatively constant rythm: plants orbit stars, hearts beat, people have natural sleep cycles, all of which have relatively stay rythms to them. Even if all of this was stripped away, we must still consider that modern time keeping is defined by the equation stating that 1 second is equal to:

the duration of 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom.


In other words, a truly asynchronous environment would imply a randomized and independent temporal vector for each individual atom, which would completely change the way physics works.

  • $\begingroup$ I wasn't assuming a truly asynchronous environment just one without detectable seasonal or day cycles such as has been assumed in several recent questions. Also communication does not require synchronization. If it did people would need to check time before they can talk to each other. And having your clock be off would make you incapable of communicating with other people. Normal discussions and internet exchanges such as this already follow asynchronous protocols. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 0:33

There are some interesting philosophical lines drawn here. The mere idea that things are cyclical is known scientifically to be an illusion. Entropy always increases. Globally, we cannot return to our previous state. To claim a universal cycle like our days/months/years cycle is really just a "good enough" approximation to make good plans. The cycle is an approximation, not a reality.

So the best way to get rid of the cyclic thinking which leads people towards synchronous approaches is to make sure it isn't all that useful. If a group of beings were stuck in a highly chaotic environment, rather than a more periodic environment, it would be less useful to work with time in the first place. It'd be preferred to, instead, continually measure that which you are interested in, and work with it.

Another case might be a society where you never disengage from life, and let it take its course. We're used to instructions "mix the cake ingredients, pop it in the oven for 45 minutes." However, if society expected you to interact with the cake until it was done, your cake might take 30 minutes, or it might take an hour. The time would be less useful.

Historically, more things were done this way. If you look at recipies from your grandmother, they have a lot fewer details like times. If you look at recipies from your great grandmother, they may not even have any measurements at all. Food was done "seat of the pants," by taste. The syncrhonicity of our world has evolved, it wasn't always this way.


They would eventually create human centered clocks.

Assuming humans can even be supported in such an environment (other life needs those cycles too), humans need consistency and repetition to feel that they are "safe" (as seen in babies and toddlers) or "in control" (business management, planning for war, going out on the hunt, planning plant harvest times, in general - estimating how long it will take to get things done).

That desire will not be eliminated.

Because time is really just a measure of distance travelled with a consistent measure, it would not be too difficult for a society lacking physical cycles to still establish human-centered ones.

Thus, they would develop a more "humane" clock rather than a planet biased clock.

For a super simple example in your sun always shines world with no technology or mechanics: consider a jar filled with water. Clockmaster "A" fills the jar with water and sets it in the sun. That is the first shift of work. When the jar is empty, Clockmaster "A" wakes Clockmaster "B" and the 1st shift can go back home and relax, while the 2nd shift comes to work. They do that until Clockmaster "B" declares the jar empty. 1st Shift then goes to sleep, 2nd shift then goes back home to relax, and Clockmaster "C" takes over with 3rd shift. When Clockmaster "C" declares the jar empty, he wakes Clockmaster "A", and the process repeats.

The only variable that needs to be adjusted is the size of the jar.

(You could do the same thing with footsteps - the time it takes for the Clockmasters to walk to the far off mountain and back, for example or - for a more "neutral, tamperproof method", a water wheel that when it reaches a certain point rings a bell, and 10 bells is one shift, etc).


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