"I am further of opinion that it would be better for us to have [no laws] at all than to have them in so prodigious numbers as we have." ~ Michel de Montaigne
On the Clock
I'm hip about time. ~ 'Captain America ' in Easy Rider
We assume so much in life.
Take time, for instance. We assume, first, its reality, that it has an objective, scientific existence in the world. We assume that the Clock is time itself. We reinforce this objective reality constantly by wearing personal clocks on our wrists and by having so much of our everyday lives tempered and regulated by it. We have clocks next to our beds that wake us in the morning and determine when we will shower, shave, eat breakfast and leave home, putting ourselves at mortal risk on the highways in a effort to get to work. Most of us have clocks in our cars, and if we have the radio on, the announcers make sure we stay aware of the ever-advancing clock. It determines when we stop working to have lunch and when we return to work, and it determines when we'll again challenge fate on our trip home. The clock determines when we'll switch on the television set to have those calming, controlling, commercial concepts and images beamed into our brains before switching it off and returning to our beds, perhaps fretting if we don't fall asleep right away and the clock tells us we're up too late (after all, who in modern America goes to bed 'too early'?).
We assume, too, the Clock's accurate and worldwide uniformity: that if 'the time is' 5:07 PM in New York City , then 'it is' 10:07 PM in London and 2:07 PM in Los Angeles . We assume the reality of seconds, of minutes, of hours and weeks and months, rarely wondering about their conceptual nature or about how these concepts have come to affect our lives so powerfully. Just that phrase ' the time is ' implies the rightness and reality of applying those numbers to the specific moment: first, we're not talking about just any old time but of the time; and, second, we're using the verb 'to be,' which indicates a certain specific, undeniable reality ' the sky is blue, water is wet, and the time is 10:34 AM .
In fact, we've become so used to thinking of time in this fashion that we no longer see the totalitarian aspects of the Clock or how it helps to control us and deny us our individuality, our humanity, and our freedom.
Before the Twentieth Century, we perceived of time much differently. Norman Pounds writes in Hearth and Home: A History of Material Culture that until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, 'life was, so far as possible, passed out of doors.' The sun governed their days, not the clock, and rural people ' which is to say, most people in those days ' 'had little sense of time.' They woke when the sun came up, worked while it stayed up, and went to bed when it went down. 'The passage of time was marked for them,' he writes, 'not by the ticking of a clock but by the sounds of nature.'
Towns, on the other hand, 'were filled with the sound of bells' (p. 199). Pounds points out that these bells had many meanings, that the sounds of the pre-industrialized world, 'unlike those of today, held meaning and significance' (p. 200), warning of danger or signifying births and celebrations as well as tolling for deaths. The desire to provide more than an indication, for instance, of mid-day or the nearest hour came later.
Prior to the 1200s, time related directly to nature: the movement of the sun, the burning of a candle, the trickle of sand in an hourglass. The Thirteenth Century, however, saw the advent of the mechanical clock, and this 'marked a change in the popular attitude toward time' as they began to think more in terms of minutes than mere hours.
The social implications of this over the next few centuries, writes Pounds, 'were immense'. It is significant that clocks became common at the time when the factory crept in as the means of organizing labor, and that they entered every home with the coming of the railroad. The factory had to adhere to a fixed schedule, and once the wheels had begun to turn, the worker had to be in his or her place' (p. 202).
As technology advanced, then, it 'improved' the lives of people by removing them from sovereignty over their own land and turning them into subservient employees, and the clock did much to coordinate this subservience. But the tyranny of the timepiece, as Pounds puts it, could only extend as far as the bell tower or, increasingly, the factory whistle could sound. Stephen Kern points out in his book The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 that 'around 1870, if a traveler from Washington to San Francisco set his watch in every town he passed through, he would set it over two hundred times.' Almost every city had its own separate, distinct, individual time. Kern writes that 'cities along the Philadelphia Railroad were put on Philadelphia time, which ran five minutes behind New York time.' In 1884, largely at the prompting of railroad and telegraph companies (those earliest technologies for annihilating our old sense of time and space), representatives of 25 nations who met in Washington 'proposed to establish Greenwich as the zero meridian, determined the exact length of the day, divided the earth into 24 time zones one hour apart, and fixed a precise beginning of the universal day.' Still, the world resisted 'its obvious practicality' (p. 12). Some regions in France, for example, had four different times, none of which easily converted to Greenwich time. 'Each city,' writes Kern, 'had a local time taken from solar readings. About four minutes behind each local time was astronomical time taken from fixed stars. The railroads used Paris time, which was nine minutes and 21 seconds ahead of Greenwich . A law of 1891 made it the legal time of France.' St. Petersburg in Russia insisted on a local time two hours, one minute, and 18.7 seconds ahead of Greenwich, and 'in India, hundreds of local times were announced in towns by gongs, guns, and bells' (p. 13). By 1913, though ' a mere 90 years ago ' idiosyncratic local time had come to an end. 'Whatever charm local time might once have had,' writes Kern, 'the world was fated to wake up with buzzers and bells triggered by impulses that traveled around the world with the speed of light' (p. 14).
But what caused this resistance to what Kern calls an 'obvious practicality,' so obvious to us now that we barely know how to question or doubt objective time? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that each of us experiences time very differently, very subjectively, and that it ebbs and flows within each unique mind, each individual consciousness. We all know how it sometimes moves slowly and other times just races by. When we're young, for example, the summer seems endless. When we're older, though, it zips right past you. We all can think of moments in our lives when time seemed to slow or to stop, or when we seemed almost to stand outside of time. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Flow about how an individual's sense of time seems to slow down or even to vanish altogether when he is concentrating on an activity he finds interesting and challenging.