Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Time is one of those things that isn't a thing at all, nor a quality, nor a process, and yet we speak of it, without any qualifications on the subject whatever, beyond the qualifications of a citizen.
"...the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions...." --Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub
In our natural state, we know time without knowing of it. We feel it without comprehending it. In fact, although we teach our three year olds how the big and little hands go, we say that we teach them to "tell" time. We "tell" time the way we we have "more than words can tell," the way that "tellers" work in a bank or the "tiller" holds the money. It is, of course, to count.

We marvel that prehistoric societies, whom we picture in our swinishly ethnocentric minds as possessed of the intelligence of three year olds, built megalithic clocks and told the seasons. Those clever people, we think, had such importance for the seasons that they piled up mounds to mark planting day. We solved the matter with a simple computer chip, after a master horologist fought a lifetime against metal rockers and springs to build the H4. A cricket escapement! However, there is little to marvel at, except that the two accomplishments, the microchip and the megalith, represent different organizations of time in life to measure time on life.

The shock we rugged individualists experience when we gaze upon megaliths and metroliths, is nearly always the same in its expression. After the "wow," the slack jawed, shutter snapping, goofus nearly always says, "How'd they build a thing like that?" This betrays an internal dialog. The tourist is thinking about what life must have been like in 100 BC or 3000 BC and how it would have been to chip away at a mountain, or to tote rocks, or to toss dirt, day after day, with no clue what you were doing, because some mysterious guy assures you that there is a purpose. It would take generations to finish. It might take centuries to finish. At the conclusion of all of that work, the other average Josephines and Joes would have not a hint as to what it was that their parents had built. It would be big, alright, but the measuring of time? Nah. Not for them.

On the other hand, the same average person who breaks his LCD watch open with a hammer and seeks what's inside gets treated to a little plate of magic. A tiny, green magic platter makes time go. Some mysterious goo oil floats in a crystal dish, and then this green thing is behind it, and that there is the battery. The work can be seen under a magnifying glass, and it shows all the marks of the work of giants. Shamans built this device. Magicians made it go. Wizards worked the enchantment of miniaturization.

We call this magic, we sum up all of this skill beyond comprehension, with a single word: genius.

The Harrison clock is a work of genius. The microchip is a work of genius. The design of the geosynchronous satellite is a work of genius. The use of frequency skipping algorithms is genius. By "genius" we encode not merely greatness but solitude, and therein lies the difference between the megalithic calendar and the modern.

We organize our efforts at telling out the time by the individual. The child will learn to count out the personal time, and the applicant will be on time for the job interview, and the student will finish the test in the specified time limits. The clock will come from the clock maker. I suspect, on no evidence but the bones of time left standing, that the other generations, the ones who puzzle us with their monuments of horology, that their society told time, that their tribe counted the planting, that their nation moved at intervals, not their individuals. They, therefore, would be as dumbstruck at our individual calendars on our cell phones, filled with appointments, as we are at their multi-generational buildings.