The Face of Time

old clock face

Humans are creatures for whom now takes its meaning from then. The old clock shows that. It has a face and hands because it resembles us. ~ James Carroll

The quote above is from an article that appeared in the Boston Globe on Valentine’s Day 2011. It caught my attention because the author writes about how people view time — literally *view* time on the clock. Specifically, his focus is on the difference in marking time on an analog clock versus a digital clock.

What difference does that make? Is there really a difference? On the face of a clock?

The article is short, if you are interested in reading the whole thing. But here’s his basic argument:

Our two kinds of clocks give us two kinds of time. The old-fashioned clock defines time as a continuity. Thus, its numerically defined face and pointed hands sweep through an endless succession of circles, marking seconds, minutes, and hours. This is the so-called analog clock, and the analogy it offers is of measurable flow. The word for our smallest unit of time, second, suggests that dynamic, since it derives from the Latin for following. Each second follows another — sequentially. While such instruments can mark those discrete instants with the sound of a tick, the face of the clock knows no separation in the values of time, but instead displays a moving picture of the past forever drifting into the present and on into the future. The cycle of the hands of the clock mimics the perceived movement of the sun around the earth. Sunrise, sunset — there’s the analog clock’s prime analogy. Its hands, that is, replicate the moving shadow of the sundial, which replicates the planetary dance. Motion is the point, and context is inevitably manifest, with hours past always linked with hours yet to come. The whole of time is shown.

The digital clock is different. In the common form showing only hours and minutes, the numbers remain static until a shift occurs. A well-placed colon defines the distinction between hours and minutes, pictured as frozen. Periodically, the numbers jump. Time is not continuous, but episodic. The digital clock renders a perennial present, effectively denying the existence of the past and the future. As its numbers exist not in relationship but in themselves alone, so the present exists not in context of what precedes or follows, but in itself. Now and now alone. The digital instrument has no face, no hands, no hint of the sun and earth in synchrony — an impersonality and lack of implication appropriate to the triumph of quantification.

Although he makes a leap into the “machines replacing people” argument, I find the underlying premise of his theory intriguing, especially when he links it into writing, what he calls the “narrative imagination.” In a digital mindset, things happen moment by moment, but not necessarily (and probably not) connected. But in analog thinking, there is causation, relation, effect: “The queen died. Then the king died. A digital clock can mark those episodes because they are unconnected. But (using an example from E.M. Forster) if the queen died, and then the king died of grief — we are in the analogic realm of time where the connection between events is what matters.”

In my readings on time and its perception, another article linking writing and the perception of time in a unique fashion caught my attention as well. Written by Rita Charron as a journal article in the Annals of Internal Medicine (Vol. 132, No. 1: 63-68), the author suggests that doctors should approach reading medical charts not clinically but as though reading a novel. “Both the chart and the novel follow individuals or generations over the stretches of time that transform the human beings on the landscape; both genres confront the primitive and ultimate problem faced by humans as their time runs out.” Charron suggests that in studying a person’s chart –“the traces of time’s passage”– can be best understood when using a novelist’s conception of “the plasticity of time,” where time’s passage, or at least the perception of its passage, is fluid and bendable. Close reading a chart as though it were a novel, then, offers “some guidance for the elusive goal of living in the face of time.”

So where is this headed? Good question. Maybe I’ve heard “Time” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers one too many times, and like them, I’m “fascinated by the face of time.”

Chicago performing at the Fraze Pavillion

Chicago concert, Aug. 26, 2011

Or it could be because my husband and I went to a Chicago concert Friday night, and I’ve had their song, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” stuck in my head ever since.

But the more likely answer lies in some of my current reading. Although my first choice in books tends not to be paranormal romances, I’ve read several lately that were good enough to make me rethink my reluctance to pick one up. The authors of these books have created their own time and space, one which readers can eagerly hop into and experience. Additionally, I’ve been rereading a couple of novels which deal with different perceptions of time — time travel, but not really. And at work, I’ve been retooling a project that involves issues of time and history.

But there will be more on those things later in the week…. my analog watch says it’s time to move along for now.

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