The nature of Time

I listened to a fascinating talk about the history of time keeping and clocks the other day.  It is a very rich area to explore as we take it so much for granted and assume that time is not only constant, but the very idea of time is equally so.  This simply isn’t the case.  Our relationship with this concept is a cultural one and like most cultural artefacts has evolved over time.  If we go back a thousand years, the only people very interested in time were monks who wanted to know when to pray.  The first primitive western clocks had no hands and simply sounded the time to let the monks know it was time for the next office.  The day was divided into 24 parts in the same way as a sundial and our 12 hour convention only emerged later.  The hands of the clock were designed to mimic the sundial which was what most people used to tell the time, and they travel in the same way as the sun travels in the northern hemisphere.  So if clocks had been invented in China first, clockwise would have been the opposite way round!  England didn’t have a standard time until the railways made it possible to travel far enough, fast enough to move from what were, in effect, one time zone to the next.  Each village merely took its time from the local church clock, and as no one could travel far enough, or communicate fast enough to deal with the next ‘time zone’ it didn’t affect anyone.  The only people for whom accurate time  was crucial was navigators, and the British Navy offered vast prizes to the inventors of a more accurate chronometer, as this provided competitive, strategic advantage to them.

All of this is fascinating in itself, but it is a wonderful example of how social and cultural constructs are not rigid and self-evident.  That as we talk to people from other cultures these things morph and we need to be aware of this.  The importance of punctuality and the rules that govern it change all over Europe.   This is just one tiny example of how complex communication is and why it is so hard to do it with precision.  The first rule is to be clear what you are really trying to say, then framing it in such a way as your audience can understand that.  Even this concept is apparently cultural.  In China and Germany there is an expectation that the audience will work to understand the meaning, in the UK the onus is on the speaker to adjust his message to his listeners! 

Communication is such a vital skill in life and business, and yet hangs on such a fragile thread…

“Behaviour in the human being is sometimes a defence, a way of concealing motives and thoughts, as language can be a way of hiding your thoughts and preventing communication.”   Abraham Maslow

“Communication is two-sided – vital and profound communication makes demands also on those who are to receive it… demands in the sense of concentration, of genuine effort to receive what is being communicated.”  Roger Sessions


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4 Responses to “The nature of Time”

  1. Rodney Deacon says:

    The past history of time keeping is fascinating but the rarely understood huge revolution that has taken place in the last 40 years of control and measurement of time from Khz to Ghz. THIS arguable has enabled the automation, communication and computer revolution we have today.

  2. Thanks Rodney… I’ve never come across this dimension, feel free to elaborate!

  3. ABWST says:

    Time like history is one event after another– as the position of a pendulum bob or a the position of a weight on the end of a spring.
    How does the human body and mind mechanistically obtain the experience time?
    I suggest that there are several ways (1) by reference to the gravitational field
    (i.e. the pendulum effect in the limbs, as in dance) (2) by reference to elastically driven vibrations such as sounds in the environment. (3) by physical effects like light/dark changes and chemical effects in the body all of which in the end lead us back to the gravitation driving them.
    We have two obvious choices we can have views or policies which are OK for the present time, or those chosen/designed for an envisaged future point in time.

  4. Andrew,
    Thank you. I suppose in its most basic form we have an awareness of three possibilities:-
    1. It has already happened
    2. It is happening
    3. It has not yet happened

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