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On Telling Time

I. The very idea of an heirloom quality computer seems amusingly absurd.

And yet this does not mean that any concept of passing pieces of technology across generations is laughable. It requires no act of mental gymnastics to think of watches, hand tools, books, furniture, musical instruments, and in some cases more robustly technical things like cars (or typewriters) being handed down. Granted the technologies in the previous list cover a wide enough swath that they simultaneously demonstrate the breadth of the term “technology” while also making it clear why the term is such a challenging umbrella. What makes the matter all the more complicated is the range represented in each of those technological sub-categories (“books” includes everything from sturdy hardbacks to cheap paperbacks). Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for us to think of many of the technologies in our lives as having reuse values that extend across many decades.

Many feel honored, like savvy shoppers (or simply cluttered) to come into the possession of the technologies that had once belonged to others. And though we may pleasurably leaf through a one hundred year old book, hang a picture with a hammer that had once belonged to a grandparent, or check the hour on a watch that has kept time across decades – few amongst us pines to possess a twenty-five year old laptop.

II. From the sundial to the water clock to the pocket watch to the smart phone – humans have long made use of technology in order to keep track of the passage of time. Granted, this is the passage of time in a very immediate form of hours and minutes – without a time tracking device one can still look to the sky or look to the rest of the natural world for a sense of the time of day or season. Most early technologies for keeping track of the hour performed that function quite well but offered little in the range of other functionality – one could not consult the Internet on a sundial – though the gears, cogs and clockwork inside clocks and watches portended in miniature form a host of technological shifts which were to further alter humanity’s relationship with time.

The clock is a particular relationship with time, as is the watch, as is every technological means for measuring minutes. It is of some significance the way in which we keep track.

While many people still wear watches today it has become more common to see people consult some form of a digital device to know the hour at hand instead of looking down towards their hand. In taking note of the passage of time on an hourly basis we are routinely reminded of the passage of time on the historical basis. For the very ways in which we try to answer that rather mundane question “what time is it?” tell us a great deal about the times in which we are living.

III. When introducing new technologies to a broad public it may well be that people are more cordially composed to accept new things that remind them of things that are not quite as jarringly new. The interest in wearable technology – as it takes form in various types of “watches” – is such an example. For, even if the “smart watch” represents something rather new, the wristwatch is something to which people have long been accustomed. And though smart watches represent a new shift in the meaning of “digital” watches, it should likewise be noted that digital watches are not new. Here the driving desire is not to know the time but to save time – it is all about greater convenience. No longer will a busy individual need to fish out their phone to check the time, they can simply check the time on their phone’s younger sibling the smart watch.

Granted, the smart watch (and other digital devices that tell time) mark an important shift in our relationship to time.

We have gone from wearing watches to being watched by the devices we wear.

We move from keeping track of time to being kept track of at all times.

Our ability to know the exact time – down to the millisecond – has increased along with our tools for quantifying our usage of time throughout the day. And even as we become ever more acutely aware of the hour it seems that we have found ourselves in a wonderland of new ways to make this time pass speedily.

IV. Technologies imply certain uses. This does not mean that a technology can only be used in a single way, but it is not incorrect to think that technologies have primary uses. For example – one can use several books to construct a little fort but that is not the main function of books, likewise one can use a saw for creating haunting music but that is not the main function of a saw. Different uses portend different things across time and go to influence how long a given technology’s use value can be extended across the years. If a book’s primary use is providing access to the informational content within the book than this can be extended for a lengthy period, if a hammer’s use is in providing its wielder with a way of exerting increased blunt force than this can be extended for many decades as well, if the core use of a pocket watch is in providing its bearer with a means of telling time than…a pattern seems to be emerging. Yet this matter becomes troublesome when we begin to contemplate the high-technology of the moment – for one of the central aspects of computerized technology is that the use is always bound up with a notion of speed, with constant “improvement” and updating. And we have become accustomed to tossing aside devices like laptops and smart phones long before they have become “useless” – as the way in which such devices are discussed and sold relies upon a notion that after eighteen months or so they are no longer useful. Perhaps this is because their use seems to be “everything” and what they promise is the ability to do “everything” ever faster.

High-tech devices claim to offer a host of uses – from making calls to listening to music to exploring the Internet – but in attempting to fill so many uses they make themselves prone to becoming useless (or used up) rather quickly. An old book still serves its use, a dusty hammer still serves its use, even a loud typewriter can still bang out a document with gusto – but much modern technology tends not to last nearly as well across time.

V.  Across the decades technologies persist in ways that often go unseen. When we pass a given technology on to friends or family we are able to witness the way in which the device persists, but those we simply discard live on as well – even if we are not there to witness these further travails. Or to put it another way – I know full well what has become of the toolkit that once belonged to my maternal grandparents, but I have no such clear concept as to what has befallen the various computers those same grandparents used over the course of their lives. Even when we feel that we have done the responsible thing and turned in old devices to be properly recycled – many of us are somewhat aware that we do not really know what is entailed in recycling. Indeed one of the things that makes recycling seem so appealing is precisely that our responsibility seems to have been satisfied once we have sorted our discarded doodads into the right bins.

And yet, Simply because we have concluded that a device has exhausted its use value does not mean that it evaporates into the air – alas, the devices we currently use for telling time have a horrid habit of lasting for many decades. Rare earth materials, metallic elements, glass, microchips, hard plastics – the things which fill the devices that do not last long in our possession tend to last a very long time in the dump.

We do not bestow our old computers as a gift to our children but as a curse upon those who live in the shadow of e-waste dumps.

That which cannot be an heirloom winds up looming toxically in the air.

VI. According to greeting cards and clichés – as we advance in years we come into the possession of ever more wisdom. Granted, most people tend to accumulate much more than wisdom over the course of their years. The wonderful thing about wisdom is that it is not particularly transient, the wisdom of experience lingers long and carries strong – but the same cannot be said of many other things. The things that surround us carry the marks of the time that has come and gone as well as the marks of the time we are now experiencing. The way we determine what the hour is tells us not just what hour it is, but reminds us how we come to know the hour – do we wind our watches every morning? Do we make sure to keep our phone battery charged? Do we rely on our cats to tell us when it is time for breakfast? Or, do we wait for the sun to peak through the curtains?

VII. While there are many different technologies that we use to keep track of time and while these devices have certainly changed over the decades – it does not seem too grand a claim to suggest that, in recent years, many people are spending ever more time engaging with technology. Of course, this is another case of a statement that is so broad as to be rather meaningless – for clothes, chairs, glasses and domiciles all represent forms of technology with which we are almost always engaging. Yet, to refine the previous comment, are we spending more time interacting with a particular class of technology, namely – computerized-technology? The things we now check to see what time it is – are they putting greater claims on the rest of our time? As we become more able to quantify and qualify our usage of every fleeting second, as we become better positioned to see the moments racing by, are we in any way better equipped to wrestle with the time we have? Does our heightened ability to know “what time it is” make us any more conscious of time – or does the hour become simply more background noise buzzing behind the image of the latest app?

Different technologies imply different uses and they suggest different ways of interacting with information. It is nothing new in human history to use technology to keep track of time – but that does not mean that all of these ways of keeping track of time have the same impact upon our perception of its passage.

VIII. Time passes. Minutes turn into hours, which turn into days, which turn into…and so on and so forth. An hour takes the same amount of time to pass if you watch it drift by on the minute hand of a wristwatch, in the blinking digital characters on a screen, or with the sun tracing its course across the sky. And though the passage of that time may have been pushed and pulled by feelings of relativity – in the end that hour was still only sixty minutes. We age with every passing moment and the things about us age as well – and though we know that one day we will cease aging, we see many things around us that will continue on after we have gone. As another year goes by it inscribes its passage on all things – from those that celebrate official birthdays to those that were rolled off an assembly line with little fanfare.

We live in time – we cannot live outside of it. And though we can do little to stop time from speeding by, we can do our best to remain aware of the speed with which we are traveling and the way in which this speed is shaping our perceptions.

A pocket watch and a smart phone will both keep track of the hour – but each device represents a different speed of life, a different speed of technology, and a different speed of living with technology.

Being able to measure the passage of time is useful, but doing so benefits from moving forward at a reasonable and responsible speed.

After all, if you are moving too quickly it becomes dangerous to even glance at the time.

IX. It is unlikely that a major technology firm will announce an heirloom quality computer any time soon. For modern technology the time is always “time for an update” or “time for a new model.” And yet this is not true of every technology – for every computer leeching toxins in a dump there are dozens of books and other tools that still function wonderfully. These represent choices not only in how we measure time, but also in how we pass our time and in what we leave behind for the times that we will not live to see.

X. A piece of technology will tell you the hour – but that is not the same as truly knowing the time.

[Image NoteThe picture of the Prague Astronomical Clock was taken by Andrew Shiva]

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

6 comments on “On Telling Time

  1. L.
    October 17, 2014

    I loved this essay how it unfolds from its initial premise(s). Thanks!

  2. Shaina Ariane
    October 30, 2014

    I happened upon this by chance. Eep! So up my alley. Or rather-my shipwrecked path. Ah, can’t wait for more posts from you. Time to voyage through the watery archives…

  3. Pingback: Time | Motivation to Succeed

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  5. Pingback: How to Read a Large Book on Crowded Public Transit | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2014 by in Environment, Ethics, History, Technology and tagged , , , , , .

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