Thursday, May 22, 2008

and there was evening, and there was morning

Cranky Old Guy's back for more. Looking at my most recent posts, I'm really starting to wonder. Anyway . . .

From metrics, to digital, to standard time. I've been reading lately about the development of standard time in America. I never really thought about there being much controversy around this stuff, and as with metrics, I've probably spent most of my life wholeheartedly embracing the current norms. I liked to set my watch down to the second, usually at New Year's. (Yeah, that's what I did at midnight--set my watch.) I'm the one who zealously goes through the house resetting all the clocks twice a year. When I first discovered that I could sync my computer clock with the Naval Observatory online, I couldn't get enough of it. And I was really pretty excited (as much as I disliked the idea of getting a cell phone) about having a clock built into my phone that syncs itself regularly.

But once I realized that these time standards were not implemented without controversy--that they were largely introduced only in a context of war--once I started thinking about them as imposed standards that the government had no business setting, my opinions formed pretty quickly. I'm not sure it would be at all practical to "turn back the clock" on this issue (so to speak), but I'm definitely nostalgic for solar time.

For just about all of human history until the past couple of centuries, the basic standards of time were found in nature--the sun, the moon, the seasons, etc. For marking out the time of day, the sun was the norm. Sunrise in the morning, high noon, sunset in the evening, and some regular divisions in between. Of course, by colonial times in America, there were clocks to help keep things a bit more regular and bridge the gaps when the sun was not readily visible. But they weren't very consistent and had to be constantly re-calibrated--to the sun. And because they weren't very accurate, it was uncommon to find precise agreement between one clock and another, so they couldn't be taken very seriously. Their manufacture was relatively expensive, so many people didn't own one. Needs for common time, to schedule a meeting or show up for an event, were met by public devices--a church bell or clock tower, or maybe a town hall. Those who had their own clocks or watches could set them by the public clock in town, and any clock could be set by a sundial. In a less mechanized world, the system worked well enough.

Ever since moving to Maryland, I've had a conviction that drivers around here lack a certain perspective on their own existence. They drive like there is no higher power. When it snows, half of them drive like the roads are perfectly dry and there's nothing to worry about. The other half panic like the world is about to end. The result, of course, is total chaos. But things are different in Western New York, where I learned to drive. Snow is a fact of life and a substantial reminder of things beyond human control. You learn to drive with a healthy sense of contingency. We'll get there at such and such time--if God wills. It doesn't always go as planned.

There seems to be a broader pattern to all of this. There is an older, more traditional way of life that recognizes our place within the natural order; there is a newer, more modern view that rejects this order and seeks the control that comes from crafting our own arbitrary existence. This newer view took the lowly clock and elevated it to a sovereign role for which it was never intended. Instead of expressing the sun's time, it came to define its own time. The sun was just too irregular and too local in its effects. Factories had to run like clockwork, and trains had to keep tight schedules. Indeed, it was the railroads that pushed for, developed, and implemented what we now know as standard time. No longer could timekeeping be a merely local affair. Clocks had to be synced across the continent.

The time zones were established, but not without objection. Cities that fell between one meridian and another often balked at adjusting their time as much as a half-hour forward or backward. States were split up by time zones and proceeded to wobble back and forth. The Federal government did not step in until it also chose to impose daylight saving time during WWI, at which point it also codified standard time. DST also sparked controversy--and contrary to popular belief, it was not primarily for the benefit of farmers. They were, if anything, its most consistent opponents. Their lives operated by natural patterns that could not arbitrarily adjust back and forth each year. The main advocates of DST wanted it for recreational purposes, but it never passed into law without the conviction that it would save energy. (Energy savings is actually the hardest defense of DST to substantiate.) And that usually happened when we were at war.

So I take my stand with the more traditional way. (Surprise, surprise!) Again, I don't think it's at all likely that I'll be on solar time next week. I do, after all, have to interact with the world around me. I have to show up for work, catch buses, and even attend church according to standard and daylight time. But I'm still going to be looking for ways to take back some sanity.

One interesting thought I had as I was contemplating all this: Not so long ago, I was actually closer to practicing what I now preach (yet without any principled stance at the time). When I was in school, I kept my watch set to the bell tower at the Basilica. I have (and had) no idea what it was set to (probably standard time). But the point is that my referent was local. In a sense, it didn't matter what it was set to. It was the most prominent public timekeeper in my life, and it was enough to go by. (Admittedly, if it had been too far off from standard time, I wouldn't have used it--but that was me then.) I can't think of a similar referent in my life right now, but if I could, it just might be enough to get me wearing a watch again (instead of always going by the time on my cell phone). Which of course would be ironic in itself--another clock, to free myself from over-mechanized time.

For now, about the most I can do is find those times to ignore the clock altogether. And maybe invest in a sundial . . .

1 comment:

Laura said...

I gave up my watch years ago. If you *have* to be on time, there are clocks everywhere.

I'm with you on the nature thing. Jim and I have had discussions about how nice it would be to live on a farm and "get back to the earth from which we came." It just seem impossible right now....