In the world of “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” the technology employed by the Ticktockman and his minions serves to both characterize and maintain their power. In particular, this technology allows them to control the populace with lethal force, and to ensure the productivity of workers and the economy. Ellison highlights the ways in which technology—including industrial technology and timekeeping, along with their resultant emphasis on productivity and uniformity—can lead a society toward totalitarianism and a lack of regard for human life.
Technology gives the Ticktockman the ultimate power over citizens of his world, nipping their ability to resist in any way in the bud. The technology of timecards and cardioplates lets the Ticktockman literally confer life and death upon his subjects. Citizens are only granted a finite allotment of time, and each instance of tardiness, noted from the timecard, can subtract from that allotted time. If a citizen is habitually tardy, they can even have their cardioplate shut off, stopping their heart and killing them. The Ticktockman has the ability to track even minute infractions, so that the state is able to effectively punish even minor transgressions and failures of the citizens to adhere to the established order. This technology is only available to the Ticktockman, however, and is shrouded in mystery to the extent that only he has full control over it, further increasing his totalitarian hold on society.
The technology used by the Ticktockman is also impossible to escape, as illustrated by the example of the husband who flees to “deep in the Canadian forest two hundred miles away” after receiving his “turn-off notice”—yet who is instantly killed regardless because the Ticktockman still has access to his cardioplate. This again underscores the horror of totalitarian control made possible by certain dystopian technological advances.
The order imposed by the Ticktockman not only results in a society that is controlled by technology but is also completely dependent upon the correct functioning of that technology. For instance, when the Harlequin dumps thousands of jelly beans from the sky and disrupts the conveyor belt-like moving sidewalks that propel workers to and from their factory shifts, he is able to significantly alter the schedule for the day and to cause a major disruption to the Ticktockman’s order. The cascading effects of this minor disturbance emphasizes the ways in which any slight technological failure has the potential to create a big impact in the society as a whole. That this failure is due to something as ridiculous as jelly beans further suggests a certain precariousness to a society so reliant upon technology for even minor, mundane aspects of life; had citizens simply walked to work, the Harlequin’s practical joke would not have had nearly such destructive power. Yet citizens have clearly become slaves to technology in nearly every facet of their lives. Here Ellison implicitly connects technology to lack of independent thought or self-reliance, which in turn makes the populace easier to control.
In addition to disrupting the schedule, disturbances like that of the jelly beans also disrupt the chain of supply and demand of the industrialized economy, resulting in unforeseen shortages and surpluses that wreak havoc on profit in this world. The Harlequin is therefore a threat to society not just because of what he symbolizes, but because of the tangible negative effect he has on industry. Technology, order, and industry go hand in hand—and a threat to one of them is a threat to all of them. In fact, order, economy, and technology are all conflated in the totalitarian society of the Ticktockman to the point that disobedience in any one area is an affront to patriotism itself: “It was, after all, patriotic. The schedules had to be met. After all, there was a war on!” In the society of the Ticktockman, economic productivity is of the highest value because it makes the country stronger; technology that enables such productivity is thus vaulted while anything that gets in the way of that productivity must necessarily be eliminated—even if that means robbing life of spontaneity, creativity, and individuality. To depart from the established order in any way poses a severe threat to society precisely because the world of the Ticktockman is finely tuned to maximize production and minimize natural human difference.
Throughout the story, Ellison emphasizes the ways in which those in power wield technology for totalitarian ends, in a way that ultimately serves as a warning against both technology and authority. Written in 1965 during an era that saw the increasing presence of technology in everyday life as well as the ongoing Cold War, Ellison’s story reflects a heightened anxiety concerning the spread of totalitarianism, and the ways in which technology and authoritarian overreach can exacerbate each another.
Technology, Productivity, and Totalitarianism ThemeTracker
Technology, Productivity, and Totalitarianism Quotes in “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman
“This is what he is, said the Ticktockman with genuine softness, “but not who he is. This time-card I'm holding in my left hand has a name on it, but it is the name of what he is, not who he is. The cardioplate here in my right hand is also named, but not whom named, merely what named. Before I can exercise proper revocation, I have to know who this what is.”
The System had been seven minutes worth of disrupted. It was a tiny matter, one hardly worthy of note, but in a society where the single driving force was order and unity and equality and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock, reverence of the gods of the passage of time, it was a disaster of major importance.
And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes goes goes goes goes tick tock tick tock tick tock and one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule, worshippers of the sun's passing; bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don't keep the schedule tight.
Until it becomes more than a minor inconvenience to be late. It becomes a sin. Then a crime.
“Why let them order you about? Why let them tell you to hurry and scurry like ants or maggots? Take your time! Saunter a while! Enjoy the sunshine, enjoy the breeze, let life carry you at your own pace! Don't be slaves of time, it's a helluva way to die, slowly, by degrees . . . down with the Ticktockman!”
“Uh, excuse me, sir, I, uh, don't know how to uh, to uh, tell you this, but you were three minutes late. The schedule is a little, uh, bit off.”
He grinned sheepishly.
“That's ridiculous!” murmured the Ticktockman behind his mask. “Check your watch.” And then he went into his office, going mrmee, mrmee, mrmee, mrmee.