Is Anyone Watching the Clocks?

By Castelluccio, Michael | Strategic Finance, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Is Anyone Watching the Clocks?


Castelluccio, Michael, Strategic Finance


With Apple's recent announcement of the new Apple Watch, it has finally joined the ranks of Samsung, LG, and others, beginning a final push away from analog timekeeping to digital. It's perhaps an appropriate time, therefore, to start asking questions about whether and how our perception of time might be changed by the new smart watches. After all, it took a while before we caught on to the differences between reading on paper and reading on glass or plastic. Some studies now seem to show we remember more of what we read in print while others indicate we are reading much more now than before digital content significantly expanded what's available. Well, as that investigation continues, it might be good to open a parallel discussion about computerized timepieces and how they might be changing us.

Digital time might be a little more complicated to evaluate than our evolving literacy. First, it's important to note that not everyone in the world perceives the passing of time in the same way. The ancient Greeks, for instance, defined time as the measure of motion. A sundial calibrated the sun traveling across the sky. Contemporary physicists, on the other hand, will tell you that time is actually a dimension, which would make it somehow simultaneous and not really sequential. A rough guess might have been good enough for the Greeks, but not so today for the more finicky people, like those at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These horologists prefer clocking vibrating cesium atoms, carefully noting a resonance frequency that is accurate to one second in 20 million years. And somewhere in between are the rest of us. Do we really need accuracy pared down to billionths of a second? Not if we're making toast. But that kind of accuracy, or something like it, will be the next thing we strap to our wrists as our new digital timepieces connect and maintain a wireless link to those insanely accurate atomic clocks at the national labs.

Putting aside the big questions like whether time is a single moment or a flowing stream, there are cultural differences in the way we all perceive time. British linguist Richard Lewis recently wrote an interesting piece about this in Business Insider. He broke down the international landscape into three basic groups. Those in the West, he says, see time linearly, and he calls them the linear-actives. They plan, schedule, organize, partition their time, and pursue action chains. They try to control the passing of time. They check their daily schedules and then try to do one thing at a time.

In the United States, there's an almost moral dimension to this approach, perhaps reaching back to its Calvinist roots. Americans sanctify timekeeping, Lewis explains. "In the U.S. you have to make money, otherwise you are nobody.[And] for an American, time is truly money," they can't tolerate being idle. He cites their strange expressions about "wasting, spending, budgeting and saving time" It's as though linear-active people believe they can control the flow of time by interjecting their own scheduling into its stream.

The national archetypes that Lewis uses to describe the linear timekeepers are Americans, the Swiss, and Germans, but he also includes the Anglo-Saxon world in general, including the Netherlands, Austria, and Scandinavia. All have a similar linear vision of time and action.

Linear-active types are consequently "monochronic." They concentrate on doing one thing at a time, and they do it within a fixed schedule. That, Lewis explains, creates a sense of efficiency. They also are generally uneasy with periods of time passing without something being done or something being decided. …

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