Technology, Timekeeping, And The King’s English

Big Ben

Big Ben

The standard clock — with its hour hand and minute hand, its twelve Arabic or Roman numerals, and its soothing metronomic ticking — is quickly becoming an endangered species. Think for a moment about how often you see a standard clock face any more. To the extent that commercial establishments have any kind of timekeeping device (and many of them don’t any longer) it is as likely to be a digital device as a clock. Many younger people don’t wear wristwatches; they use their cell phone, or I Phone, or Blackberry to tell the time. No doubt digital clocks are more precise than old-fashioned clocks.  They don’t need to be wound and there is no doubt what the exact time is. With a digital clock the time is not “about 7:30,” it is 7:28, or 7:32.

This is one of those small cultural intersections where technological changes are altering society in subtle and unexpected ways. We are quickly becoming a country in which different generations talk about time in different ways. Every person above, say, 25 years of age learned to tell time by the hands of clock and describes the time through that frame of reference; many younger people didn’t learn those same lessons and don’t give the time in that way. Tell a teenager that you will meet them at a quarter till 8 and you may well get a puzzled expression and a follow up question asking you to explain what the heck you are talking about. If you meant 7:45, why didn’t you just say so?

We may be seeing he passage of the standard clock into the mists of time, but we can salute it for having left our language a bit richer. “Clockwise” and “counterclockwise” are very useful concepts if you want to tighten or loosen a bolt. Who hasn’t said some hyperactive person was “wound up,” or that they wished they could “turn back the clock”? We wonder what “makes something tick,” and we marvel at a well-built car that “runs like clockwork.” Would Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon be as memorable without the ticking clock or the rich, resonant gong of Big Ben?

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