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Capitalism and the Clock
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Oh, this is just too good. Neil Postman talks about the invention of the clock:

But what the monks did not realize is that the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And so, by the middle of the 14th century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. The mechanical clock made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours, and a standardized product. Without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible.

I mean, on the most basic level, imagine a world without clocks. Talk about the fish not being able to see the water anymore. Wow.

It’s from a speech Postman gave way back in 1990. And the clock thing is really just an aside; the real subject is computers, information, means and ends, and almost every paragraph is blockquote-worthy.

But I’ll pick this one:

Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us: “All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.” Here is what Goethe told us: “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words.” And here is what Socrates told us: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And here is what the prophet Micah told us: “What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?” And I can tell you — if I had the time (although you all know it well enough) — what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us. It is all the same: There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.

Yeah. The future needs to be more than ease.

March 8, 2009 / Uncategorized

One comment

This reminds me of railway time. Also, I’m 99% sure that this is one of the arguments Max Weber gives in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Some of Postman’s claims are weird. For one thing, “synchronizing and controlling the actions of men” is EXACTLY what the monks were trying to do — the clock as a means of discipline is a holdover from monastic life, not a deviation of the technology itself. Also, sure, maybe printing “transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition,” but it also definitely helped create and disseminate Protestantism… and so on.

But I do really like this idea: “There is almost no fact — whether actual or imagined — that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction.”

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