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Dark Digital Days

March 13th, 2009 by dk

So many workers are being asked to take unpaid furlough time to help employers avoid painful layoffs, why don’t we get ahead of the trend and begin declaring unpaid holidays? At least then way we all can be taking the same days off. Start with Daylight Saving Time. I need two days to find all my clocks that need resetting. If the doorbell rings while I’m watching television, I pass nine clocks before I reach my front door.

The television, VCR and computer; the coffee pot, microwave, and stove; the thermostat, indoor/outdoor thermometer, and stereo. I think the dishwasher also knows what time it is, but it doesn’t tell me — I paid extra for the “ultra-quiet” model and I’m glad for it.

I’ve never worn a wristwatch, because the time announced unprompted feels like being hollered at. I prefer pocket watches with a flip-open cover. I can brace myself before being told something I might not want to hear.

Those days are gone. Now the time is staring at me constantly. My cell phone shows the time. Every receipt tells me. My car tells me the time in three different places, but the engine is probably keeping track too, in a place only my mechanic can reach.

Every new gizmo wants to tell me what time it is. It’s a cinch to add a clock to its list of digital display functions. But not one allows me to turn off that function.

Digital displays add to my burden the oppression of precision. Round clocks with hands must be reset twice a year, but digital clocks need constant resetting. If the TV tells me it’s 4:15 PM when I rise, how can it be 4:19 PM twenty steps later? The outdoor thermometer by the front door insists, and I’m left to make peace between the two. Or ignore them both.

When the coffeepot says it’s 4:16 and the microwave beside it claims it’s 4:18, who am I to arbitrate their silicon skirmish? Warning me away from the fray, each blinks its colon between hours and minutes, as if to say it’s lying down but wide awake and watching me with both open-and-shut eyes. If they could agree it’s “quarter-past four,” I could live with it. But no.

Is it any wonder moral relativism has taken hold in our over-digitized viewscape? When my clocks can’t agree what’s right, what hope is there for flesh and bones?

Precision shouldn’t be confused with accuracy. Just because something has been calculated to four decimals doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, the greater the precision, the more likely it’s not precisely correct. A stopped clock used to be right twice a day. But a stopped digital clock, with an AM/PM indicator and a display that includes seconds, is right only once a day and for only one sixtieth of a minute.

Humans and digital clocks are not well suited for each other. Data-gathering plays an early but small role in most of what we know. We’re approximators by nature. We estimate better than we tabulate. We guess better than we tally. We become convinced long before we become certain. We’re analog creatures in an increasingly digital world.

My brother Bill works for NASA. One of his first assignments as a “human factors engineer” was to evaluate all the knobs and meters used by astronaut pilots to make split-second decisions. About one third of the time, he recommended returning to analog dials, because the motion of a needle conveys trends more elegantly than a series of changing numerals. If a rocket engine is running too hot, that’s important to know. If the temperature changes suddenly, that might be even more important.

My friend Kendrick is pastor of a quaint New England church. When his congregation undertook the job of restoring their white-steepled clock tower to its original 18th century form, they made an unsettling discovery. Originally, it had no minute hand. No need. “Around Six” was good enough — the cows had grazed long enough on the village green, and it was time to head home for soup before nightfall. Daylight saving was something everybody did all the time.

Speaking of dark times, late Medieval records indicate that peasants and serfs suspended their labors for over 100 holidays each year. Nobody wants to go back to those days, especially when contemplating dental care, but we should be ready in case nobody asks.

We’re told too well when we’ll be late, but not at all when we’ll be too late.


Don Kahle ( has twice asked jewelers to snip the minute hand off his analog watches. He writes for The Register-Guard on Fridays.

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