Call me the mechanical boy


My new watch arrived today. I hadn’t really slept since ordering it, so great was the anticipation of ownership. It’s an atomic watch. I couldn’t be more proud.

It’s called the Eurochron Atomic Watch and it sets itself according to the atomic caesium clock located in Boulder, Colorado. Charmingly, Eurochron says my watch receives ‘time telegrams” from Boulder throughout the day.

The eerie thing about my watch is that it’s now in perfect sync with the cable box. Pam and I determined this by shouting “now” when each advanced a minute. I am sure there are some imperfections in the system, but someday all clocks will give exact time.

My grandfather worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad and every day at noon, the CPR would send a signal to every little station house so that all clocks could be synchronized and all the trains made to run on time. Between the noon of one day and noon the next, some of these clocks would slip into the dreamy imprecision of an Oxford don, but, hey, who cared? Even the most errant clock would return to orthodoxy in about, oh, 5 hours, 14 minutes and 3 seconds. Give or take. If humans sometimes go on “moral holidays,” surely clocks could have moments of their own.

My sister sent me a Garmin handheld for my birthday. It determines location by GPS. I think she hopes geo-caching will get me out of the house more. The unit shows an animation: a rotating earth surrounded by revolving satellites. You can’t actually see yourself on this spinning planet, but you know you are there somewhere. More exactly, the satellites do…most exactly. This is really eerie. When Pam and I took the Gamin in the car, it calculated not just location but distance traveled and average speed. We can’t get it to “lose” us even when we went 120 miles an hour on I-95 and careened without warning down country roads.

So there’s a tension between the perfect calibration of time and space, and the slippery imperfections of the social and personal world. The world is rich with variety and muddied by loose boundaries. It is, come to think of it, almost entirely Elizabethan. The Renaissance distinguished between the unchanging world of the stars above and the sublunary one below where everything is change and sometimes chaos.

For the Elizabethans these were mutually exclusive worlds, but ours intersect in interesting and useful ways. It is precisely because the world is so precisely calibrated in space and time that the change and chaos can be allowed to flourish. My clients don’t care to know where I am or what I am doing for most of the month of April, just so long as they can synch with me at precisely 4:00 on the 21st day in a specified room of a specified building. This is our CPR moment. I am now entirely devoted to their bidding. My intentions are their intentions. Once the project is done, I begin to wonder off to think of other things. And that’s ok, because the synch will be made to happen again.

Indeed, this might be why the consultant model works so well. It is actually better to hire people who have spent 24 hours (or days) in a relatively feral state. The consultant who is released from corporate intentions (and committee meetings) is actually more interesting and productive than those who are not. I don’t suppose that I get very far out of the corporate mind set, but this is just as well. This is, after all, a “sweet spot” game. I can only serve the corporation if my absence was shore leave. The AWOL consultant is hopeless (and almost certainly has tenure somewhere).

I am not sure where I am going with this one. (Frankly, I am so besotted by my new watch that it’s a wonder that I can write at all.) But I think I am moving away from that favorite way of thinking about the future that says, “everything you know is wrong. We can think about the future only by examining every assumption and learning to live with the most exceptional order of disorder. The world is changing is beyond recognition.” We heard a lot of this on the run up to April 2000.

No, the more interesting strategy is to observe the interactions of order and disorder. It’s as if we are installing an infrastructure. This is designed to make a minimum of assumptions about the world that will spring from it. It is designed to enable just about anything. But it is an infrastructure and as such it will trade off some things to get us others.

So much for the old Romantic idea, that the world of creative profusion comes from departure and a refusal of the rigidities of the human world. No, in this case, disorder depends upon order, imprecision requires precision. The real question then becomes is there a set of minimum assumptions that maximizes the quality and quantity of output even as it works constantly to diminish its own footprint. What do we need at a minimum to generate a world that operates at the maximum?

I don’t know. It could be just my new atomic watch talking.


Bettleheim, Bruno. 1959. Joey: A Mechanical Boy, Scientific American, 200, March: 117-126.

4 thoughts on “Call me the mechanical boy

  1. steve

    Peter Galison’s book on Poincare and Einstein has some very interesting stuff about the history of “piping time” around cities, nations, and the world. The stuff about the French fighting to make Paris rather than Greenwich the prime meridian definition is worth the price of admission.

  2. Matt

    120 mph is _slow_ for an airplane (planes use GPS for navigation all the time), and country roads are mundane compared to the places soldiers sometimes go (GPS was developed by and for the military…the fact that you and I can own receivers for it is just a side effect). If it can receive the satellites’ signals, your GPS will _always_ know where you are…although its ability to translate this into a form useful for navigation decisions based on land and roads may be limited by your choice of map software. 🙂

    As for the consulting thing, I’ve taken to explaining my work situation to non-understanding family used to the conventional working life as “I have lots of deadlines, but no schedules”. My clients care that the solutions I’ve promised to build and implement for them are done on or before the day I’ve promised they’ll be done, but they’re too busy running their own businesses to worry about whether I show up at an office on time and stay there for 8 contiguous hours, five days out of each of 50 weeks out of every year, much less about whether I look busy while I’m spending my time.

  3. Grant

    Matt, that’s the best description of consulting I think I’ve ever heard: “I have lots of deadlines, but no schedules.” Thanks. Grant

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