Does anybody really know what time it is?

October 10, 2010

Well yes. As a matter of fact we do. Mostly. A surprisingly broad segment of our lives now runs in perfect chronometric synchronization due to wireless and internet accessibility to the atomic clock time.

I was reminded of this fact a while ago when I arrived at the front entrance to our building a few moments before 8:00 – the time when our automated alarm system unlocks the front door. After pulling on the door handle to confirm the door was still locked, I thought I’d try an experiment. I pulled out my cell phone and counted the seconds until ITS clock read 8:00, testing the door every now and then to ensure it was still locked. As my cell phone reached 8:00 (and zero seconds) there was a soft click as the building computer also reached 8:00, simultaneously unlocking the front door. Pretty cool. I’m not certain all our clocks are synchronized to that degree but a quick comparison of my cell phone clock with the clock in the corner of the computer shows they’re generally within 15 seconds. The digital display on the phone on my desk is surprisingly recalcitrant – lagging by a full two minutes which in today’s day and age seems scandalously unreliable.

Mostly, knowing the correct time was a relative thing. Meetings started according to the bosses’ watch.

For whatever reason, the virtual synchronization of time in our lives has pretty much come without much fanfare. I think it’s fascinating – not so much for the technological accomplishment as for the social and cultural ramifications. I suspect I’m not alone in remembering when plus or minus five (and sometimes 10) minutes was sort of the norm in our confidence level for timekeeping. When the meeting should start. When the movie would start. When class would finish. These were as much a product of guesswork, speculation, debate and negotiation as anything. Sure there was a number you could call at the phone company and listen to a delightfully (and somehow appropriately) robotic voice chant off the correct time. Well some correct time anyway. But mostly, knowing the correct time was a relative thing. Meetings started according to the bosses’ watch. Movies would start when the theater said it was time. Class was done when that damnable clock on the wall finally clicked forward to the last tick (only after first clicking backwards for some inexplicably nefarious purpose). Mostly that’s all gone now.

On the whole I think I mostly like this disambiguity. I distinctly remember early in my career once sitting in a meeting listening to people debate whether it was time to start the meeting for long enough that it most certainly was. That seems quaintly silly nowadays. At the same time, I recently sent my Grandfather’s wind-up watch off to have it tuned up. When it comes back I think I’ll most certainly wear it. I’m just not certain I’ll trust it. After all – as the old saying goes. A man with one watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is no longer sure. That is unless they’re synchronized over the internet.