What If There Weren't Any Clocks to Watch?

By Zarembo, Alan | Newsweek, June 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

What If There Weren't Any Clocks to Watch?


Zarembo, Alan, Newsweek


Three Centuries ago, a Dutch mathematician named Christiaan Huygens invented a new religion. He didn't mean to. All he did was build a pendulum clock that allowed people, for the first time in history, to keep track of hours and minutes accurately. But over the decades, this power attracted millions of followers. In the 1850s, people started strapping clocks around their wrists. Then came the school bell and, with the Industrial Revolution, the punch clock for shift workers and the standardization of time zones for the railroads. Now the idol of the West, the clock hangs in nearly every office. Its worshipers look into its face several times a day, waiting for signs that it is time to go to work, to eat, to sleep.

But the clock is not omnipotent. Yes, it will get a lot of attention around the globe on New Year's Eve, 1999, but that is the exception. Many cultures still march to different drummers. Time seems to move faster in Frankfurt than in San Salvador. Monks in Burma know it is time to get up when there is enough light to see the veins in their hands, and showing up on time is cause for ridicule in Mexico. In "A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently" (258 pages. Basic Books. $24), Robert Levine describes these intriguing variations in tempo.

His researchers visited cities around the world to measure the accuracy of public clocks and to time how long it takes downtown pedestrians to walk 60 feet and postal clerks to sell a stamp (table). In Switzerland, clocks are slow or fast by an average of just 19 seconds. In Brazil, one man was more than three hours off when he told Levine it was "exactly 2:14." At the central post office in Jakarta, Levine was sent outside to street vendors. New Yorkers placed sixth in walking speed, but, Levine admits, that doesn't take into account their propensity for jaywalking.

Much of the world lives on what Levine calls "event time." In Paris, you might set a business meeting for 3 p.m., but in Burundi, you might agree to meet when the cows return from the watering hole. …

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