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Stop Time's Tyranny--Don't Watch the Clock : Consciousness: Man's sense of the world has evolved in sync with the timepieces he has created to mark its passing hours.

December 13, 1990|STEWART I. EDELSTEIN | Edelstein, a litigator in a Connecticut law firm, is writing a book on etymology. This article originally appeared in the New York Times.

Just as the words in our language control the way we think, the mechanical devices we use for clocks control our concept of time.

The evolution of such mechanical devices, from early canonical clocks to the digital clock, has caused our consciousness of time to become increasingly removed from our natural sense of time and our own internal clocks. As a result, we have become out of sync with ourselves.

The first step toward mechanical measurement of time occurred in the 6th Century, when European monks needed a device to announce the times of day prescribed for prayer, based on the sun's apparent movement: dawn, sunrise, midmorning, noon, midafternoon, sunset and nightfall.

These clocks were weight-driven machines that struck bells after a measured interval, seven times a day, adjusted for latitude and season. They did not show time, but rather sounded it.

Indeed, our word "clock" has its monastic origin, the Middle English "clok," in the mid-Dutch word for bell.

By the 14th Century, Europe was dotted with large turret clocks in churches and town halls, which sounded equal hours 24 times a day, giving rise to a new time consciousness.

Shakespeare's characters talk of time "of the clock," which became our "o'clock," as in "6 o'clock." By the 17th Century, clocks had minute and second hands.

From the sounding of bells, to the rotation of dials, to the display of digits, we have lost touch with our natural clocks and have become increasingly time-conscious.

The dial (analogue) clock displays the flow of time, its hands inexorably completing their assigned orbits just as the planets orbit the sun and the sun cuts its arc in its daily journey across the sky. The analogue clock is thus analogous to nature.

The digital clock, on the other hand, has no analogue in nature. Contrast the gradual sweep of the analogue clock's hands with the jerky staccato parade of integers on a digital clock.

Daniel J. Boorstein's observation in "The Discoverers" about the development of mechanical devices recording equal hours (unknown in nature) is equally apt in describing digital clocks:

"Here was man's declaration of independence from the sun, new proof of his mastery over himself and his surroundings. Only later would it be revealed that he had accomplished this mastery by putting himself under the dominion of a machine with imperious demands all its own."

Digital clocks affect our very concept of time. When asked the time, we now say "2:57," "5:42" or "9:33," rather than "about 3 o'clock," "quarter to 6" or "half past 9."

Thanks to the microchip wonders of digital technology, we can be precise to the minute, even to the second. There is no ambiguity in a displayed digit.

Digital clocks inform us when to wake up, when the coffee is ready, how long we've exercised, when our food is fully microwaved, how long we've been on the phone and how late we are.

Monks in the 6th Century knew the time seven times a day. Thanks to digital technology, we know the time 60 times a minute.

It doesn't stop there: A recent advertisement featured a digital watch that touted "1/100 second chronograph, repeating timer, standard and weekly alarms, with shock stop for alarm sound, split and elapsed timers (water resistant to 100 meters)."

Our children may never develop the ability to read analogue clocks, which may soon be on the endangered species list with analogue consciousness.

In a subtle but significant and insidious way, digital clocks are yet another assault on our natural circadian rhythms, compounding the onslaught that arose with the advent of artificial light, confusing night with day, now manifested in 24-hour radio, 24-hour television, 24-hour gas stations, 24-hour fast-food establishments and 24-hour banking.

I am no atavistic neo-Luddite advocating wholesale destruction of digital clocks. They are a 20th-Century fact of life and are here to stay.

Rather, I wish only to raise the reader's consciousness of their impact and of the tyranny of time-keeping that they symbolize and to suggest ways to counteract their insidious effect:

* Buy a hammock. Use it. Do not wear a watch while luxuriating in it.

* Go for a hike in the woods, leaving your watch at home. Forget about time.

Audubon societies, arboretums, state parks, land preserves and other sanctuaries provide miles of trails just waiting for you to explore.

* Go to a baseball game. It is the only professional team sport of no predetermined duration.

(Contrast, for example, professional basketball, with its 12-minute quarters, 24-second shot clock and a digital clock displaying 10ths of a second for the last minute.)

* Take a vacation where time is irrelevant--on a Caribbean beach, on an Outward Bound trip or wherever suits your fancy.

* Celebrate naturally occurring events.

For example, what did you do on the date of the vernal equinox (a natural holiday in Japan) or the date of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year?

What will you do on the date of the autumnal equinox? What about the next full moon? The next sunrise or sunset?

Remember the 6th-Century monks, who were not only aware of, but also gloried in, the sun's progress seven times a day.

Develop a hobby that puts you in tune with nature. Some suggestions: gardening, biking, canoeing, sailing, boating, fishing, swimming outdoors, hiking, jogging, painting, orienteering, bird watching, photography and astronomy.

You should be able to devise more coping mechanisms, suitable to your individual needs, to escape digital tyranny.

As you do, consider the words of the renowned English essayist William Hazlitt:

"I have never had a watch nor any other mode of keeping time in my possession, nor ever wish to learn how time goes."

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