What if I told you that humble clock was alive, and has not only the power but also the motive to:
- shrink the oceans
- pull down the heavens
- make lots of money
- and perhaps, stab you in the back
I'm referring to the clock generally, but the device that I'm holding is very much a product of the maker movement. It's 3D printed, the creator put this out for free, and one thing I appreciate is he's used his page to draw attention to horology - the craft of clock making.
The reality is though that in the context of today this is nothing more than a toy. It's good to have some reminders of the past around us. But the device alone can't tell you its tale.
We're going to use the clock today to learn something about emerging technologies. The clock is useful because it's origin is unknown to most, which allows us to reflect upon it with fresh eyes, without bias. They say that retrospect is 20/20, but that's not always accurate depending on the context, if history is a road with many forks, where a single path is taken at each split. Then, reflecting back gives us the illusion of a single path since we can no longer see all the forks. Take a well-known piece of transformative technology, such as Gutenberg's press. You're probably not an expert on the matter, but likely know that by making text and books easily and cheaply reproducible, the printing press led to an explosion of ideas impacting many parts of European society and then the world. Because it's better known, it easily provokes a well-trodden narrative about the technology, like the one I quickly mentioned. Such a narrative makes it hard for us to imagine other possibilities for the technology and makes it feel like both the invention and its subsequent impact was inevitable and I would argue that's not the case. For one thing printing presses already existed before Gutenberg's improvements and there were many cultural forces at play that contributed to the impact that the press had. Plus the impact it would have was not predicted at the time.
Back to clocks, how did this tech shape society? The full history of all time-related devices such as sundials and hours glasses goes way back. Though a watershed moment for clocks was the invention of the escapement, which is the mechanism in the clock that gives it it's precise ticking.
What's important, though, is who invented it and what their motivation was. By who I mean which group of people as we don't know the individual, instead we know it was twelfth-century Benedict monks trying to improve their timekeeping as they had time allotments for many things that made up life in the monastery. Being monks, times of devotion was significant to them, and in fact, they had seven periods of devotion a day. It's understandable that better precision in timekeeping would help with their devotions, rather than relying upon one of the monks ringing a bell multiple times a day to prompt their rituals.
Once the escapement, hence the clock hand, had been invented it soon "escapemented" the monastery walls and by the mid-fourteenth century there were many "town" or "public" clocks. The roll-out of the clock did not only increase the precision of timekeeping but changed the notion of time itself. Conical hours was the time kept by the church and it was pretty rough because it never needed to be exact. For example, vigil was from about 2 am to dawn, matin was just a later portion of vigil, lauds was dawn and so obviously would vary with the seasons and so on and so forth. Now with an exact measurement of time possible, suddenly time was no longer a sequence of events that followed on from one another but instead, a resource that should be spent carefully. A sign of this is what was engraved on many of the early time-pieces like "time is short", "wasting time" etc. Phrases we're familiar with, but we don't feel the need to write onto our clocks. Such a change in society's understanding of time, obviously had social consequences.
But first who pushed for these "town" clocks? It was the merchant class, as timekeeping fit in well with business, they also enjoyed that the new time standards gave separation from the church. It's not surprising that Italian cities like Venice and Genoa saw the largest boom in clocks since they were famous for trade, and the lives of businesspeople became more regimented than ever.
The church wasn't happy about this. One simple reason is that there were now conflicts in the ringing of bells between the church's time and the town clock's time. As the merchant class gained influence and secular life grew, more often than not the church was forced to change its bell timing, not the reverse. There were more theological reasons why the church didn't like the advent of the clock. They were concerned with the public's new conception of time as a challenge to their faith, as time previously was thought to be part of nature and so belonged to God. The new, more abstract view of time changed that, so now it belonged to the individual, as merchants started to sell their time directly in hour increments instead of days, it was seen as selling something that belonged to God. The church fought the clock, but ceded ground and the clock is here to stay.
The clock became a force for controlling and synchronizing the actions of workers. By introducing regular work hours, it also helped pave the way for the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism centuries later.
To bring us back to the silly thought that the clock is alive and has its own motivations. I'm not serious about the alive part obviously, but it is accurate that technologies have particular bias embedded in them that can exploit characteristics of the culture they find themselves in, often against the best wishes of the inventor. Devote monks set out to produce a device that would help their spiritual pursuits and ended up, instead being most efficient at aiding in monetary activities.
At the same time, the clock shrunk oceans by aiding in navigation, pulled down the heavens with its uses in astronomy, made money for the rising merchant class, and it betrayed its original inventors by reducing spiritual life.
During the Reformation, a period that saw the catholic church lose its monopoly status over spiritual life in Europe, Martin Luther, a prominent figure in these events, understood what having a bible in every home would mean for the catholic church's power, as, if everyone could read God's word for themselves they wouldn't need the churches hierarchies to be the arbiters of spiritual truth. That is to say, Luther understood and exploited an inherent bias in the technology of the printing press.
Which brings us back to Gutenberg, a devote catholic, who would have turned in his grave if he learned the way Martin Luther was using his device. Another example of technology betraying its creator.
It seems that currently there are only two, polarised views on tech. There's a camp that is extremely critical and spends all their time imagining dystopias, and the other that equates technical progress with human progress.
We need a more complex and nuanced view of tech, as we are currently facing a big problem with misinformation and there's a comparison to be made between the printing press and the internet. After the printing press was invented and dramatically reduced the cost of information, there was a lot of tension between different religious factions (Catholic and protestant). It started with violent language and eventually, outright violence, in fact about 130 years of it. With the advent of the internet just a handful of decades ago, we've seen a dramatic reduction in the cost of information and also rising political tensions with lots of violent language. I sure hope that we don't have another 130 years of violence, but I'm not terribly hopeful given the kinds of solutions that are being proposed. Take Twitter's "bird watch" program, which is a bandaid solution if I've ever seen one. It seems very little people are actually proposing to ban some of the root causes, which seem to be recommendation algorithms that optimise for engagement but have the side effect of promoting false information.
That's a massive topic so I'll stop there, but I'd recommend a talk by Niall Ferguson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07KKYostAJ0
As a closing statement, I'd suggest you try and get less screen time. Remember that there are whole teams of engineers trying to get you to spend more time staring at your device, and it's not in your best interest.