Keeping Time

The Millennium.  I can recall the time, when I was a child (just after the Flood), that I first heard someone on TV talking about that impossibly far off event, the turn of the Millennium.  I think the announcer said something like, “When that day comes, for those of us who are still alive…”  I did some mental arithmetic and decided that it was not implausible that I might actually still be alive.  But not really alive.  I mean, I would be…old!  Over fifty!  Aged and feeble and decrepit.  I might make it to the Millennium, but I would clearly be too old to enjoy it.

(I am not sure that today’s kids, looking at me, would disagree with the forecast.)
It’s odd, though.  Seems to me that some of my problem in those bygone days had more to do  with aesthetics than age.  It was not just that fifty-three sounded impossibly old to me back then, but it also sounded ugly.  Here we have a beautiful, round, symmetrical number like 2000 and we plunk down alongside it an odd, warty, jagged number like 53.


Which is strange, when you think about it.  We have this thing about numbers.  We care about them.  Some are pretty, some are dull, and some are downright ugly.

Is that what we mean when we say we live in the Digital Age?  That we have an emotional reaction to mere numbers?  Have we in some sense absorbed numbers not just into our thinking but also into our psyches?  Have we somehow become digitized?

Oddly enough, I think the answer is yes.  I think that one of the fundamental ways we differ from our ancestors is the way we have been shaped by numbers.  It is one of the inheritances we will pass onto the next millennium.

When did this Digital Age begin?  One could make a fair argument for 1946, when ENIAC, the first true digital computer, was built.  Or one might trace it to the 18th century and the Enlightenment.  Some other might campaign for the 17th century and Rene Descartes’ Rationalism.  Further back, one could also claim that it was in the 1500’s, when Roman numerals were replaced in Europe by Arabic numerals, including the mysterious cipher for non-existence, the arcane zero.  Or one could even stretch it all the way back to the Roman legions who relentlessly marked off the known world with mile stones based on the mille passuum, the thousand paces of the marching man (That might seem a bit short, as we measure a ‘pace.’  The legions measured a pace as the distance from where the left foot left the ground to where it came down again.  I.e. what we would call two paces.  Ergo a mille passuum or Roman mile was about 5000 feet or roughly equivalent to ours.)

But that argument has no definite end.  Humans have always counted by tens, that being a convenient match for the numbers of fingers (digits) the human hand is blessed with.  (Of course, we could have used base twenty, but that would have been useful only in summer, when the bare toes were available.  And it obviously would have been inconvenient to use base twenty in summer and base ten in winter.  …But I digress.)  So one could argue that we were always digital.

But I suspect that if we want to be true to the spirit of the term “Digital Age,” we would have to find the first time our human obsession with counting things led to some sort of major paradigm shift in our basic world view.  When did the numbers begin to change us?  When did we first begin the move (to use modern terms) from analog brains to digital ones?

Answering that question, I would offer 1300 as the time when the Digital Age began.  As nearly as we can tell, that is when the first mechanical clocks were invented.  And it was the clock that caused that first shift in mankind’s map towards the modern.

Let me explain:  The word ‘hour’ is such a fundamental word that we treat it as a sort of universal.  It is not one of those concepts whose origin we wonder about.  It just is and (presumably) it always has been.

Problem is, that is not true.  We see ‘hour’ as a constant, and so for us it is.  But once ‘hour’ was a variable.  I suggest that the Digital Age began when the one changed into the other.

From the time people first left the world of hunting, gathering and scavenging and settled down into the world of agriculture, they found themselves captive of a remorseless rhythm.  They had unintentionally enslaved themselves to the steady march of days, seasons and years.  For thousands of years it was that rhythm that shaped our lives and bounded our thoughts.

The ‘day’ is too coarse a measure.  Every country took those rhythmic days and broke them down into more usable chunks, whether they called the result watches or shifts or hours.

But the earth goes around the sun.  Our days vary with the seasons.  In summer, the daytime is long and the nighttime short.  In winter, the opposite is true. And so all around the world the hours or watches or shifts that people chose varied with the season.  In summer, daytime hours were long and nighttime hours short.  In winter, the opposite.  For thousands of years, everyone treated their divisions of the days and nights as variables, waxing and waning with the seasons.

The days vary and therefore so must the hours.  It was plain common sense.

This seems a bit daft to our minds, but remember that we are reaching back from the digitized world into the analog.  And until the modern age, people lived in a world where everything seemed to vary and nothing stayed fixed.  It is recorded that the barbarians actually considered the Romans to be somewhat mad and somewhat impious as they tried to enforce order with their milestones on a chaotic creation.  Creation was unstable because God (or the gods) had made it so.

This sort of analog thinking seems to have been universal.  And it led down some interesting byways.  My favorite example of this sound application of common sense to the art of quantification is the ancient Chinese measure called a li.  If you look this up in a dictionary, it will probably say that it is about a third of a mile.  The truth is more interesting and more fun.  The length of the li depended on the terrain.  An uphill li was shorter than a level li.  We may see this as crazy, but actually it was a very practical measure.  The actual distance represented by 50 li might vary, but the time and effort it took to travel both 50 li was the same.  It was a human measure and a pretty useful one at that.

But back to time.  It was hard enough, when the total of metalworking tools consisted of the hammer, chisel and file, to make a machine that cranked out a regular beat.  To add the requirement that it controllably vary its beat with the seasons, automatically changing from long daylight/short nighttime hours to short daylight/long nighttime hours, was simply beyond the common technology of the fourteenth century.  It could be done, and on fussy little armillary sphere movements that you had to fiddle with all the time it eventually was done.  But not on any really useful scale.

So the great tower clocks, with their massive wood and iron movements, beat with a steady rhythm throughout the year.  And the new machines spread across Europe, imposing their regularity on the cities.  The citizens were used to timing their days to the ringing of the church bells, so the first timepieces were made to ring bells to tell the hours.  That is why they were called clocks, from an old word meaning a bell.

The fashion for these new inventions led, in fairly short order, to redefining the idea of an ‘hour.’  Two versions were offered, the old variable hour and the new rigid definition given by the clocks.  One might call out in the night, “What’s the hour?” and get a reply, “Nigh onto the third watch.”  Or, one might ask, “What’s the time o’ the clock?” and hear, “‘Tis just struck four.”

The clocks won.

The new inventions suited the bustling industries of the towns.  If you were a small craftsman, there was nothing wrong with having your apprentices straggle in whenever the sun happened to wake them.  Each one worked on their own project, building and shaping it till it was done.  But as your business grew into something like a small manufactory, with different people performing different tasks, each dependent on prompt delivery from the previous worker, such lackadaisical behavior became intolerable.  Managers began demanding that workers appear at the same hour every day, no matter what the sun said.

As the cities grew, sucking more and more people away from the farms, more and more people had to learn the new system of marking the days off into the new ‘hours.’  Eventually, with the coming of the railroads to link city and farm into massive networks, the new hours became universal.  As a species, even if we made our living by farming, we had had to shift our mental maps to match the brutal rigidity of the machine.

The result was unexpected.  This change proved essential in building the quantification that underlay the technological revolution.  Time and distance became fixed things that could be measured and numbered.  One could say that the growth of our technology was paced by our ability to measure ever smaller increments of time and distance.

When we look back in time, we often ask, “Was it really so bad?”  Obviously, it depends on when and where you are talking about.  (One of the secrets of argument is discovering the trick of picking the right standard of comparison.)  But if we are talking about the second millennium, then for most of the time it certainly was That Bad.  This second millennium of our era began with a life that was, for most people, very close to nature.  Life close to nature was, in Thomas Hobbes words, “Nasty, Brutish and Short.”

If the growth of technology during this millennium has driven us far from nature and digitized our brains, it has also presented us with four tools, four great new inventions, that have allowed us to so alter our lives that the end of the millennium is very different from its beginning.

First, it gave us Time.  Time not as capricious lord, but as a consistent handmaiden to measure, schedule and predict our world.  Time became our servant.

Second, it gave us the Machine.  Once, to accomplish a project, we tried to figure out how to get enough men or horses to do the work.  Today we immediately try to figure out a machine to do the job for us.  The Machine became our servant.

Third, it gave us Power.  Once the only powers were wind, water, and the muscles of horses and humans.  Technology taught mankind to make his own power wherever he wanted.  First with steam, then with gasoline and oil, and (more dubiously) with the atom.  Power became our servant.

Finally, we have inherited the thinking that built the technology in the first place:  The idea of Progress.  We are trained in the new (in terms of human history) idea that the future can be made to be better than today.  It is such an expectation that today we can hardly imagine a time when that belief was not a part of ourselves.  The Future has become our servant.

These tools, the legacy of this millennium, have re-shaped our brains.  We have come to love our numbers, our machines, our engines.  We have come to expect Progress as if it were a natural law.  They may not be the best of all tools, and our descendants may grow beyond them.  But they are our legacy for the new millennium, and no mean legacy at that.

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