James Carroll

Time’s face, time’s digits

By James Carroll
February 14, 2011

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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.

As maps are symbols representing an idea of space, but not its actuality, clocks are symbols signifying the human experience of time, but not defining it. Nevertheless, such symbols go a long way toward shaping consciousness. The modern digital clock is an eloquent indicator of the epistemological revolution unfolding in the aptly named digital age, when all knowledge is quantified by being literally reduced to the digits of computation. The great advantage of this way of knowing is precision, reflected in a timepiece that offers the exactitude on which numerically based sciences, economies, networks, and cultures increasingly depend. The commodification of time that began in the industrial era when the needs of machines took relative primacy over the needs of people (the assembly line, say) has been so absolutized by the engineering of knowledge that the day can now be foreseen when machines will replace people altogether — when artificial intelligence seizes the initiative to declare itself no longer artificial. The digital clock is essential to this, since precision is as necessary to the cognitive machine as it is to the scientific method.

The reduction of time to numerical value promotes the reduction of meaning, too. The shift from the accumulation of experiences that are understood by virtue of their connection to one another, adding up to “experience,’’ to life perceived as a series of unrelated happenings, the present moment forever isolated from past or future, is an impoverishment. No need to call such digital instants “seconds’’ anymore, since their sequence is neither represented nor counted. The narrative imagination, which is concerned with linkage and causality, thus gives way to episodic thinking. 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. We are in the realm of feeling, and of, yes, necessary imprecision. Indeed, imprecision is the great virtue of the language of intimacy, hope, and love, for such inexpressible values are conveyed not by computation but by implication. In fact, by analogy. Digits know nothing of such things. 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’s column appears regularly in the Globe.