Sunday, March 25, 2007

Clocks as the Devil

(interior of rare lantern clock c.1700 by Thomas Shilling of Boughton - exterior below)

A brief history of clocks:
(Caution: takes awhile to get to the point, but might be interesting along the way!)

The earliest clocks were water clocks built by the Chinese, and later, the Europeans; but they depended too much on physical geography and the caprices of water supply.

(Town clock in Auxerre, France)
The Rennaissance idea of having a town clock, run by weights, changed the overall time paradigm of people’s lives, in that they moved from a daily time division (ie: sun-up to midday to sun-down) to an hourly one. Suddenly the day was divided into twenty-four little slices.

Now imagine what it meant when clocks came inside the house. Manufactury became more refined and cheaper - became an industry rather than, or as well as, a craft - and suddenly anyone with enough money could keep time in their own house. This was a charming diversion, a conversation piece, but with a side-effect: the twenty-four little slices became thirty-six little slices, and so on, down to the present day with our atomic clocks and those clocks that count hundredths of a second.

And somewhere along the way, someone had the brilliant idea of timing their workers by the clock. Now I ask you, who lives under a greater tyranny of time: those people with the town clock, watching the hours? Or we modern folk, delayed by the natural events of life, and marked as “late” because we arrive two minutes after the mark on the clock claims we should be there?

In the old world, the daily-time one, there was a sense of the world being under constant adjustment. The days got longer, and there was more time to work. The days got shorter, people stayed in their homes and slept, or made things (or made babies). With the clock regulating how we worked, things like night shifts came into being. The world ceased to flow in a natural way. The conversation between nature and the man-made world began to peter out.

So: are clocks the devil? Have they offered us some fruit of knowledge that has turned us out of our easy ignorance? Has consciousness of time taken magic out of the world?

There is an interesting essay based on a talk given by John H. Lienhard on the nature of power (in both senses of the word). Below an interesting discussion of the history of the steam engine, he talks about how for two millenia after the invention of the first self-regulating device, no one took it any further:

“Now consider something about feedback -- about the self-regulation of machines: When we let go of the knob, we relinquish control. For the totalitarian mind that's a very uncomfortable thing to do.”

In light of this, he has some interesting things to say about the invention of the clock:

”The mechanical clock had no feedback features whatsoever. Its accuracy depended entirely on getting everything absolutely right at the start.
The orderly mechanical clock diverted the medieval imagination. Clockwork, with its wheels and gears, became the new metaphor for God's creation. God had ordered the planets just like clockwork, they said. He wound them up and set them in motion.
So the last vestige of self-regulation evaporated. We embraced the concept of clockwork, and by the year 1700 we'd stretched that concept to its limit.”

Thus begin the seeds of what came to be modern scientific thinking: determinist (everything being a matter of cause-and-effect); reductionist (looking at things as much in isolation as possible, disregarding big-picture ideas for those that are provable); and, in the long run, lacking in wonder. Oh, sure, scientists will tell you that the reason they love science is the sense of wonder, the finding out; but for the rest of us, to whom the world is constantly being defined, explained, diagrammed and delineated, there is indeed something lacking.

Look at the way kids amble along, looking at things, ordering the world into their own system, their own cosmology. They are not constrained by time (just watch parents trying to hurry them along to be on time for school or to get in the car for the next errand). They do not have their world defined for them yet.

Perhaps this is why there is such an interest in Steampunk, Clockpunk, and other milieu of that ilk: it gives rein to the imagination, it allows us alternate physics, alternate geographies; it frees us from the constraints of science and the clock’s tyranny.

I, for one, would like to continue to be an explorer of the universe. I would like to bring clocks back to their very best state: that of conversation-piece, automata, a magical example of the marvels of intellect and skill. Onward! Or perhaps, Backward, and then Onward!


Anonymous said...

This corresponds with something I've been thinking about for a while - that for everything I know, no matter how hard everyone works the world is a closed system and there's not much to be gained by it ultimately. I suppose what I'm saying has already been said in Life of Brian, "You
come from nothing, you go back to nothing, so what have you gained? nothing!".

I see it like a ship on an ocean planet, with everyone at the oars. The politicians and management pushing everyone to row as hard as they can and big bonuses for effort. Sure you travel further every day, but where does it get you?

HibiscuitsGirl said...

I wonder if you are familiar with Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father or Taylorism, which is a philosophy that has pretty much had the biggest impact on our society for the past 150 years. His ideas and his use of time was frequently called "evil," and he is a shining example of how clock-based time can be made into something tyrannical.

Heather McDougal said...

Yes! I am familiar with him. In my Junly 23rd post about androids, I talk about the Gilbreths, who worked on movement efficiency in the same vein. But Taylor didn't fit into the post, so I've been saving him for other things.

Good point!