I don’t follow baseball vey closely, nor do I watch many games. I had no interest in watching the Home Run Derby before the All-Star game. Unfortunately I still listen too frequently to sports talk radio. After the said derby, commentators proclaimed that the new rules involving time limits had made the experience much more enjoyable. “The clock saved the Home Run Derby,” proclaimed one radio host. After discussing it briefly, they quickly turned to other areas of life where clocks could make things better, like for teenage daughters in bathrooms, bank lines, and so on. If only we could have more clocks in our lives!
This got me reflecting a bit on the the invention of the clock. Besides fire and the wheel, I have a hard time thinking of other inventions with as much staying power. The influence of the clock goes so deep we don’t notice it. Part of the motivation for me to read Authority, Liberty, & Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe by Otto Mayr was the hope that, among other things, he would give some perspective on the clock and its impact.
By “clock” Mayr means the mechanical clock. People used sun-dials from ancient times, but even the most reliable sun dials (in Egypt where the sun always shined) did not facilitate an acute subdivision of our experience of time. In other more cloudy locales the sun-dial had even less influence. The mechanical clock came on the scene in the late middle-ages and immediately made a dramatic impact on that society. People fell in love immediately. In his Paradiso Dante used the metaphor of the movement of a clock’s implements to describe the movement of the angels in heaven, and this merely stood as one example among many. The rare dissenting voice did exist. The Welsh bard David Gwillym wrote,
Woe to the black faced clock which awoke me on the ditch side. A curse on its head and tongue, its two ropes and heavy wheels, its weights, yards, and hammer, its ducks which think it day and its unquiet mills. Uncivil clock like the foolish tapping of a tipsy cobbler, a blasphemy on its face.
But on the whole the “ayes” substantially overwhelmed the dissenters. People praised the precision and complexity of the instrument, and almost immediately various metaphors for God’s design of the universe arose. And as we might expect, no people sang such great peans to the clock as in Germany.
Such was the scene on the continent. Yet those in England reacted far differently. Yes, many liked the clock and it came into general use. But far more dissented in England than in other places. In Love’s Labor Lost Shakespeare uses a “German clock” as an epithet. In Richard II Shakespeare flips all the positive clock metaphors and in a soliloquy by Richard has the clock stands for a symbol of undue self-consciousness and a failed life.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, that strike upon my heart
Which is the bell. So sighs, and tears, and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours . . .
Why did they feel this way? Here we get to the heart of the main idea of Mayr’s book.
Mayr believes that ultimately the answer lies in the different kinds of political cultures of England and the continent. Briefly, authoritarian style politics had far more “boots on the ground” in places like Germany and France, which explains their love of the clock. He develops the connection thusly: England’s political theory emphasized balance. Whether they invented the idea of the “separation of powers” is beside the point. They had a long history, predating the Magna Carta, of seeking equilibrium between different political bodies, which the European continent lacked. This led England to put much more emphasis on developing “feedback” technologies. These devices did not exert power so much as prevented one element from gaining too much power. The thermostat serves as a good example of such a device. It helps create balance. Neither heat nor cold win the day. Notably, thermostats only come on when they need to correct the temperature. Otherwise they lie dormant.
We may balk a bit at this distinction. We may not consider the clock a device associated with unchecked power. The clock may always be “on,” we surmise, but it exerts no direct influence over us. Perhaps, but I think Mayr has a good point. During the talk show I mentioned earlier, for example, all the ideas that people had related to people having to move faster because of the presence of the clock. They wanted the clock to make people act in certain definite ways. Our speech reflects this as well. We “answer to the clock,” and so forth. This idea played itself out politically.* France had Louis XIV, Robespierre, and Napoleon. Prussia had Frederick the Great. When England’s Charles I attempted to reign more independently he faced a revolution and the loss of his life. Mary Tudor and James II also failed to introduce significant changes.**
The book moves along nicely to show how other “self-regulating” systems developed in England. Aside from the political self-regulation between king, parliament, and courts, Adam Smith developed the idea of a self-regulating economy. Mercantilism, the prevailing economic theory in the 18th century, called for one to dominate other countries via exports over imports. Smith believed the market could work much like a thermostat and correct itself with no government interference. Central control of trade not only was unnecessary, but counter-productive. We need not wonder about the veracity of Smith’s theory here. What seems obvious from Mayr’s extensive knowledge is how developments throughout a particular culture have a common root. The thermostat and Smith’s free market ideology come from the same place.
If the clock occupied pride of place for inventions from 1300-1800, what shall we say about our own day? We would first need to decide what invention has pride of place in our society. One would at this moment probably say the smart-phone, but we might wonder if in 10 years we will have moved on. So we should settle on something larger, like “digital technology.” As Peter Thiel has commented frequently, we have dramatically advanced the world of “bits” while the world of atoms has remained stagnant. We need to look beyond mere profit and opportunity to understand why we have done so.
The digital universe excites us perhaps mainly because it has no discernible limits. The powers of computers change all the time. We can assume different identities, and so on. We can always have our music. We can contact anyone we want at any time. It seems at times as if we can defy reality itself. The world of atoms, however, confronts us with limits. And if our recent behavior surrounding gender and sexuality give us any clues, we do not like limits.^ Our politics may soon start to reflect this and our corporate practice.^^ Who can say exactly where this will end up? But if the trend continues we may need to revisit De Tocqueville’s dilemma regarding liberty (no limits on our actions) and equality. We cannot have unfettered doses of both, for at some point they work against each other. We must choose. We still live in the real world.
*Compare Bishop Bousset’s explication of absolute monarchy for Louis XIV to James I (King of England) own writing on the subject. Both reach similar conclusions, but in very different ways. Bousset’s writing has an inexorable logical methodology. James I writes more haphazardly, and more poetically.
**Henry VIII may be the exception that proves the rule.
^I re-watched The Matrix recently and noticed something curious. At the end of the movie Neo speaks into the phone to the machines and tells them that he will show people “a world without limits, a world of possibility” and so on, and then proceeds to fly in the air. But surely he refers to the world of the Matrix? This is the world that offers the possibilities of dodging bullets. In reality we remain subject to gravity. On board their ship they have to wear dingy clothes and eat protein goop. So what did Neo really mean?
True to form, the story starts to bleed out in the next two installments. The Wachowski’s can’t stay content to let Neo be limitless merely in the Matrix (which makes some sense within their invented world). By the end of Matrix Revolutions Neo can stop the Sentinels in reality just as he could stop bullets in the Matrix. The Wachowski’s refuse even stay within the limits of their own story.
^^I like Amazon, but I found it a bit odd that they essentially tried to start their own holiday (Prime Day).