Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Of clocks and cars

I'm currently reading Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilisation, the first major study in English of the long history of technology in the West, published in 1934. By an odd coincidence the introduction to my edition is written by Langdon Winner with whom I had to share a bathroom during a recent conference about Jacques Ellul, technology's very own Cassandra.  If only I'd realised! I digress ... In addition to being a revisionist historian of technology - he dismisses the idea that somehow all technology sprang out of the earth with the Industrial Revolution - Mumford was a pioneering student of urban studies, the geographical cousin of technology studies. The machine is not just a metaphor for the modern city; its rational organisation and systematisation is somehow a correlative of an economy and leisure culture which depend on technology as their prime means (and sometimes their prime end).
Lewis Mumford

What has engaged me most in the work so far is the centrality that Mumford gives to the clock in the history of technology. People think the steam engine changed everything, and Mumford does not entirely dismiss this thesis. But, he argues, it is really the invention of the mechanical clock (first records from the 1200s) which marks the watershed in our civilisation. Put another way, it is not so much the clock or what it can do mechanically which are revolutionary. It is its impact on human organisation which is the really significant thing. As the clock intersects with culture, time begins to be measured not by concrete or incarnate phenomena (sunrise or sunset) but by the abstract passage of one hour to another. The ultimate reference point for duration begins to shift from the eschatological to the chronological. Long before the steam engine makes its apppearance, clock-measured time means money, and ownership of a watch or mechanical clock is seen by the emergent bourgeoisie as one of the signs that one has made something of oneself. Time becomes readily divisable in ways it never had before, and rationalisation of one's abstracted hours becomes ever more possible.

All this makes me think of how much my own life is run on time - for professional reasons obviously but in many other ways too. I don't suppose it could be different. I'm glad of having my clock. I suppose I couldn't get as much done as I do if I didn't live by its organisational power. This does make me wonder, however, whether the clock is not an essential cog in the cultural machine that seems to be driving us ever faster and faster. The telephone, radio and TV have done their bit to that end, while email and the internet have sent us into hyperspace (or hypertime?). Meanwhile, on my shelf are one or two works of Paul Virilio, the inventor of dromology or the study of speed. I supppose I really should find the time to peruse them butI have much else to plough through - Bernanos, Gabriel Marcel, Gustave Thibon, Georges Duhamel, Marcel de Corte, Jacques Ellul - before I get to Virilio. The iron law of the clock, eh? Quite.


Meanwhile, I was convinced technology was attempting to take its revenge on me last weekend. We had friends to stay and they and my wife watched in bemusement on Sunday morning as through the window of our sitting room they could see our car's indicator lights flashing wildly while the horn merrily tooted about once a minute. Since I was at that moment upstairs, they wondered if I was sitting on the key fob - which for the record I wasn't. We drove to church and hopped out just in time for Mass, but before we could get ten yards from the car the tooting and flashing began again. Now it was no joke. It was attracting attention. The Birmingham Oratory's choir do not take well to their rendering of Flor Peeters's Mass being accompanied on the car horn (invented, I note by Birmingham's own Oliver Lewis). Bizarrely, by the time we reached the church doors, the tooting had stopped.

All afternoon, while we sat in the back garden eating and drinking, there came not a toot from the car. Yet when I returned home from the train station after dropping our friends off and parked up on the drive, the tooting and the flashing began again. In despair I spent twenty minutes emptying our rather crowded garage and gingerly edged the car through the ridiculously narrow aperture which the architect on his plans laughably designated as the door. I left the car door open to stop the horn tooting, but since we sleep above the garage, we found ourselves woken at 2 am by the sound of the car trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to lock itself. Happily we moved to the guest room and slept on!

'Are you sure the boot is fully closes, Mr Sudlow?' the Brummie mechanic patiently asked me on the phone on Monday morning. Yes, I was! So I took it to the mechanic's, and for a diagnostic test priced £53 + VAT ( @20%), they told me I needed a new key fob with a new remote control thingummy. Job's a good 'un, as they say where I come from. By 5pm the same day, I got my meek and mild car back, and the mechanic walked away with over £200 - for which achievement I quite unjustifiably posed to myself some awkward questions about his parentage.


The point of all that is simply put: technology bites back, as Edward Tenner said. Well, and Plato too. In Phaedrus Plato relates how King Thamus the King once entertained the minor god Theuth who had invented writing and was rather pleased with himself about it. But Thamus was having none of it (or none of 'ith', I suppose): 'Those who acquire writing will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful. [...] What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.' 

If only I could remember what my point was when I started this post, I'd be able to tell you who was right.


  1. I'm really enjoying this blog, but as the only topics I could have engaged on seriously would have elicited comments of "cream or custard with the pudding?" or "I had that happen with a key once", I have been doing a Wittgenstein VII.

    But, as I say, I'm really enjoying it so please carry on.

  2. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darĂ¼ber muss man schweigen, as they say around Brum! Glad you're enjoying it.