Marshall McLuhan on Clocks as Media



“The clock dragged man out of the world of seasonal rhythms and recurrence, as effectively as the alphabet had released him from the magical resonance of the spoken word and the tribal trap” (McLuhan, 1964, Understanding Media, MIT Press Ed., p. 155).

“As a piece of technology, the clock is a machine that produces uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern. processed in this uniform way, time is separated from the rhythms of human experience. The mechanical clock, in short, helps to create the image of a numerically quantified and mechanically powered universe.” (p. 146)

“The paradox, the surprise and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men [Benedictine monks] who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money [businessmen]. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.”  (Postman, Technopoly, 1992, pp. 14-15)

James Carroll Channels Marshall McLuhan

Posted on February 15, 2011, by Campaign Outsider

Author and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll (who’s not me, despite widespread local confusion over the past two decades) had a terrific piece on Monday about the difference between analog and digital clocks. Read it here:

Time’s face, time’s digits

OUR TWO kinds of clocks give us two kinds of time. The old-fashioned clock defines time as a continuity. Thus, its numerically defined face and pointed hands sweep through an endless succession of circles, marking seconds, minutes, and hours. This is the so-called analog clock, and the analogy it offers is of measurable flow.

But the digital clock is different, Carroll writes:

In the common form showing only hours and minutes, the numbers remain static until a shift occurs. A well-placed colon defines the distinction between hours and minutes, pictured as frozen. Periodically, the numbers jump. Time is not continuous, but episodic. The digital clock renders a perennial present, effectively denying the existence of the past and the future.

And this matters why? Because it shapes our perception – and our experience – of the world.

The reduction of time to numerical value promotes the reduction of meaning, too. The shift from the accumulation of experiences that are understood by virtue of their connection to one another, adding up to “experience,” to life perceived as a series of unrelated happenings, the present moment forever isolated from past or future, is an impoverishment. No need to call such digital instants “seconds” anymore, since their sequence is neither represented nor counted. The narrative imagination, which is concerned with linkage and causality, thus gives way to episodic thinking.

That’s the very definition of media visionary/loon Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message. Print media told us the world is linear, connected, coherent. Electronic media told us the world is disconnected, instantaneous, simultaneous.

Don’t even ask about digital media.

James Carroll, quite rightly, mourns the loss:

Humans are creatures for whom now takes its meaning from then. The old clock shows that. It has a face and hands because it resembles us.

Marshall McLuhan (who maintained that cataloging the effects of new media didn’t necessarily signal approval) would have wholeheartedly agreed.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged analog clocks, Boston Globe, digital clocks, James Carroll, Marshall McLuhan, medium is the message. Bookmark the permalink.


2 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan on Clocks as Media”

  1. When I was 18 I started keeping a journal. That’s a lot of years ago now, but it does feel in some sense to me as though my journals keep the whole thing together. I wonder if one can ‘trump’ the sense of disconnected experiences with as simple a tool as a journal.
    And, only vaguely related to your post but… At one time I tried to develop the ability to lucid dream. I read all the books and did all the exercises without any luck. But one of the signals lucid dreamers use to determine whether or not they’re dreaming is to look at a digital clock. If in a dream you look away from a digital clock, and then look back, it will always show some completely random time. A rotary clock on the other hand will keep consistent time even in a dream.
    Excited to have found your blog!


  2. John, that’s an interesting experience you describe, which I haven’t heard of before. The idea of not knowing whether a dream is just that or reality is of course a significant theme in literature, most notably perhaps in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream. Thanks for the comment…….Alex


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