Author and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll (who’s not me, despite widespread local confusion over the past two decades) had a terrific piece on Monday about the difference between analog and digital clocks.
Time’s face, time’s digits
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.
But the digital clock is different, Carroll writes:
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.
And this matters why? Because it shapes our perception – and our experience – of the world.
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.
That’s the very definition of media visionary/loon Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message. Print media told us the world is linear, connected, coherent. Electronic media told us the world is disconnected, instantaneous, simultaneous.
Don’t even ask about digital media.
James Carroll, quite rightly, mourns the loss:
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.
Marshall McLuhan (who maintained that cataloguing the effects of new media didn’t necessarily signal approval) would have wholeheartedly agreed.