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September 24, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Time After Our Time

The clock that never stops



Some wander for days to find God. Others meander for years attempting to find themselves. But never before have I wrestled with the urge to pilgrimage to a clock. I often look at one. I have admired them. But the prospect of spending days wandering in search of the time has never crossed my mind.

But in the shadow of a mountain close to Van Horn, Texas, a clock is under construction—a clock that would be well worth the trip, and indeed the time.  This is a clock that aspires to run for ten thousand years. Genius and Steve Jobs lookalike Danny Hillis came up with the idea in the 1980s. Carved into rock, it runs by utilising the change in temperature between day and night; the thermal power created is able to move the dials and push the chimes. This is well beyond the scope of year twelve physics.

Hillis is seeking to reinvigorate the notion of the intergenerational duty. Viewing our lives in relation to future and past generations makes us, Hillis would argue, more responsible, better beings. That moral concept has been a hurdle to deficit reduction and climate change alike: how do you make people care about impacts that will not be felt for one hundred years? This clock will, just as ancient buildings do with the past, connect us with our future.

The pilgrimage is certainly aspirational. You must start at dawn. Walk all day until you uncover a jade door, acting as an air lock, that is your entrance. Then, inside, blackness awaits except for a tiny speck of light at the depths of your vision. You make for the light, groping as you go (I imagine it will become infested with snakes and spiders, so think Indiana Jones) until you reach a staircase.

Now the light is above you. You climb, up and up until you reach the winding station. This requires two or three people to operate, so don’t kill your friends on the way there (a common urge in Texas). Keep walking. Probably knackered now. Finally you reach the clock face, but the time it displays is only that of the last viewers (this is more energy efficient and also adds to the eeriness). Once again more winding until the current time is eventually displayed in all its glory for you.

Robert M. Pirsig once wrote that “to travel is better than to arrive.” The value of the clock to humanity comes from our journey to it. Its function of time display is irrelevant. Instead there is something deeply religious of which we should take notice.

Its size, its longevity, the pilgrimage; it is the atheist’s dream place of worship, a sanctuary for the particular and timely.

It is not hard to be cynical about the concept. Although as many measures in terms of materials and structure have been taken to safeguard the clock from damage, there is one thing the inventor may not protect his sculptural Casio from: human error. Whether it be a silly child, too eager to push something, or Texan hicks in search salvation/ precious metals choosing to destroy a symbol of human brilliance, the clock might be stopped as it started—by human hands. Then what? It sits unworkable, out of battery, derelict: now a memory of failure, a warning against hubris.

Man has always liked grandeur. America definitely. Texas especially. So in one sense, this feat of human exceptionalism is all in the same vein: an arrogant, megalomaniacal portrayal of one guy’s passion. It is as narcissistic as NASA, as blunt a memory as the Arch de Triomphe. Yet Hillis certainly does not intend that to be its purpose. It is a clock to remind us of our own social makeup. The clockmaker is not to be remembered. It is just for us to keep considering our future and for our future to be reconsidering us with time as the interface.

Time is good like that. As Allen Bennett so aptly put it, when describing history: “It is just one fucking thing after another.” Constant. “It is just one fucking thing after another.” ▲


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