Friday, July 06, 2007



Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

I've often noted that I see clocks reading all ones (1:11 or 11:11) more often than I ought to by chance. I commented on that the other day, at 11:11, and wondered what the odds really are. It happens three times each day during the hours when I'm likely to look at a clock (I'm not often up and about after one in the morning). How many minutes are there in a typical day that also qualify?

The friend to whom I was saying this thought that maybe I just look at clocks more often than I realize.

Maybe so. Our lives are quite centered around time. Most of us wake at a certain time, get the kids to school at a certain time, and get to work at a certain time. We have a schedule at work: things we have to do now, other things then, when we take breaks, when we have lunch. We leave and go home on schedule, have dinner at an appointed hour, and check the TV schedule for the evening.

Now, I'm not going to say that we're “slaves” to time, because that's overly simple and melodramatic. That we follow schedules isn't really a bad thing. We're creatures of habit, we humans, and, while an overfull schedule with constant demands is stressful, taking the clock away from it wouldn't change that. We're actually comforted by the predictability of the schedule, by and large.

But the 11:11 thing is an interesting artifact, one that comes from digitizing time. My grandmother only really knew digital clocks by the ones in front of banks, which alternated with the temperature — and often malfunctioned. Her life was analogue, and she told time in a certain way that related to that. She'd never have said that it was 11:11.

For her, the hour was divided thus:

  1. “It's 11.” That might mean 11:00 straight up, or 11:03, or even 11:07. She might even have used this for 11:11, or she might have put that into the next category.
  2. “It's quarter past.” Quarter past what, she didn't say; you were just meant to know. And again, it was an approximate thing.
  3. “It's half past.” I don't think she ever said anything like “eleven-thirty”.
  4. “It's quarter to.”
  5. “It's almost 12.” That's the only quarter-hour that was at all subdivided. I'm not sure why she'd say, “It's almost 12,” but wouldn't say, “It's almost half past,” but there you go.

Well, clearly, more precision is needed for some things, but you know what?: more precision than that is pretty much unnecessary for daily life. And, in fact, the excessive precision of digital time can be an impediment. I don't know about you, but if I have a 2:00 meeting, it registers more strongly with me to know that “it's almost 2” than to see that it's 1:56. Even if I'm catching a 2:06 train, it's good enough to think that the train is at 2. If it helps, one can just add the note that one had best be on the early side (to cover the “almost” times).

The time of day-to-day life is analogue, not digital.

Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?
If so, I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to cry.

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

I think some of that is more than digital clocks. I don't wear a digital watch, but I still tell people the time in minutes, not approximations - much to the amusement of a friend of mine, whose answer to "what time is it?" isn't even "around 2" - it's "we're not late yet".

I know I look at the clock much more often than I think I do, because if I forget my watch, or the battery dies, I find myself staring at my wrist all the time.