I’m reading an excellent book called About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang by Adam Frank. I love thinking and contemplating about “time” as an independent cosmic element, just like mass or velocity. Time is elusive and untenable. It is the most mysterious of all the elemental building blocks that comprise our physical (and emotional) reality. Time is not often the subject of scientific literature as a subject in and of itself, but Frank tackles the slippery subject splendidly. He begins with a vast sociocultural history lesson spanning back to prehistory. While on my way to work yesterday, I read this passage in his discussion of the advent of modern time-keeping (it’s difficult to comprehend the world before hours and minutes structured our life in such an encompassing manner).
It’s tempting to behold each great invention in the march of mankind and extrapolate backwards in futile attempts to lay “blame” for our present civilization at the foot of said invention. Certainly Frank places much of the “blame” on the invention of the mechanical clock as the impetus that accelerated society toward its modern time-fixated, rushed pace. However, his tone is one of neutrality; his tone is one of fascination and awe, not cheap “blame.”
It’s sad to think some nameless, unrewarded monk was ingenious enough to congregate several mechanisms and basic gravitational levers and pulleys into one contraption that standardized the measure of time independent of the sun’s arc or the seasonal perturbations of the planets and moon. The clock was indeed an astounding cultural landmark. Up until the middle ages, time was approximate; whereas the annual and seasonal march of time was more sharply defined, the 24-hour chunk of daily time was diffused with solar approximations. The human world subsisted on markers that were arrived at by consensus. Time was indeed “relative” in a manner of speaking. The mechanical clock structured our daily progress in a tangible and subjective method that we internalized as a second consciousness in subsequent centuries. Our day become segmented and the hourly measure of progress was indelibly written on a mechanism of gears and which transformed over great reaches of time into today’s ubiquitous digital displays driven by crystals and oscillation. Our existence is parceled and driven by time. We are time conscious and our life is a progressive march of deadlines and appointments. The profound impact this has had on our cultural mind is nearly indefinable.
Imagine a world without a coherent, explicable sense of time. In other words, imagine that all time keeping devices suddenly vanished, now. At 2045 PDT. Imagine. The world’s functioning would grind to a halt. Thousands and millions of people would probably perish as the bowels of the global technical infrastructure which routes the lifelines of modern civilization would be thrown into disarray. We would have no choice but to rely on the heavens. When the first hints of dawn begin peering over the horizon we can be reasonably sure it is about 6 or 7 in the morning. As the sun extends its journey across the sky, we become less sure of the exact time. We can approximate. What becomes of appointments and time clocks and reservations, plane schedules, or worse, medical and health schedules?
Eventually, what becomes of our psyche over the generations of a timeless society? In the absence of time’s reliable partitions, what becomes of everything else? Like a house of cards, our reality becomes muddled and collapses. Nothing is exactly where we expect it be and precision flails. Precision and predictability, intrinsic components of a dependable timekeeping structured society, no longer steer our expectations. Time as a leverage of modernity is abandoned.
The mechanical clock transformed life permanently as we live it.
Inventions and technological progress, in retrospect, seem all the more spellbinding when witnessed through the prism of the ages and the transformation of human civilization in response to the inventions. There are few inventions which have been solely responsible for the greatest upheavals of mankind’s consciousness and deflected the trajectory of social evolution for ages. Computers, and their spawn, the internet, are one such momentous historical refraction that will catapult human social evolution toward unforeseeable paths of fate. There is a tendency to “blame” the ills of society on technology but this is missing the point. To blame technology or said inventions does not unearth the true phenomena. Inventions don’t spring from a void. Inventions are the spawn of a society’s innate desires and intellectual status. A society’s inventions are an expression of its evolved desires, and ultimately a manifestation of that which mankind is ready to acculturate into its new reality. Society gathers its yearnings and produces the tools that will propel it forward on its preconceived course. Inventions are not accidental. They are the thermometer of our communal psyche.
Inventions are the tool we’ve been waiting for to leapfrog into the next stage of our world. The unknown designer of the medieval mechanical clock merely heeded the call of a world that sought new levels of structure and ascendance over the ambiguity of this materializing existence we sought to fulfill.
And we are still seeking to fulfill.