A few months ago, my grandson John announced to me that he could tell time. I was impressed with the 7-year-old prodigy and held out my wristwatch for a demonstration.
"Oh, I don’t do face time, Grandpa," he explained, "Just number time."
It was hardly surprising. Many of his father’s generation can’t tell face time. They are the first fully digital generation. If you held a gun on them, they wouldn’t be able to set a clock at "a quarter to two." And why should they, when they are surrounded by countless readouts with sterile digits to display the time?
I am not bemoaning the advancement of chronometers. I am instead counting myself fortunate to have been able to witness the Theory of Relativity in action, simply because I learned (painfully) to tell face time.
Einstein tried to tell us that time is a slippery subject. For example, 2.2 seconds on the game clock has different lengths at home or away, and depending on who is in the lead. And it is common knowledge that you can order and receive a pizza during the last "two minutes" of a pro football game.
Any member of my generation can testify that the hour between 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. in a fourth-grade classroom is longer than most two-week vacations at age 50. We would marvel at the slowing sweep of the second hand on those government surplus clocks that were regular wall fixtures in the day.
Number time does not fully display this phenomenon. Watching an analog timepiece as it visibly slows despite your powerful mental efforts is the only way to experience this chronological vexation. It can be found in airports, dentist’s offices (where the effect is seemingly intensified by the presence of aquariums) and soccer games.
The geometric depiction of time is a powerful aid. Fifteen minutes is a quarter of the pie, and if you glance up at the beginning of a time interval (sermon, flossing, burning a steak, etc.) you can immediately envision the finish time without all that mental addition, with its messy "carrying."
The drama of a vertical minute hand announcing the hour is more powerful than double zeroes. High noon is portentous; double zeroes are just a reset. While movie scenes showing a down-ticking digital display do possess suspense, they cannot compare to the Doomsday Clock set at 11:57. Face time is a pie chart of where our minutes go, not just another numerical data stream.
A flashy accessory. Needless to say, the demise of face time has not gone unnoticed by "facemakers"—those who sell face-time devices. Looking ahead to oncoming generations, who will doubtless be implanted with a cell phone at birth, the idea of number time being the only time is not amusing to watchmakers. It’s hard to sell analog watches to people who don’t know what "half-past" means.
Other economic sectors are being clobbered as well. Fake Rolexes are way easier to peddle than counterfeit Maseratis. The idea of a fake digital watch is just silly, since we all know the movement costs about 6¢ and rhinestones look downright weird around an LCD display. Without doubt, clunky analog watches are the powdered wigs of today’s upper crust.
I am curious how many TAG Heuer watch owners can tell you how long it is until the plane touches down. Actually, I know, because I’ve asked. Seventeen dials on their wrist, and the best they can come up with is the barometric pressure in Tokyo. No matter how many glamorous celebrities wear enormous watches, unless the display has four numerals, it might as well be hieroglyphics.
But for those of us whose visual acuity has attenuated slightly, it is much easier to guess the time from a "face Timex" than from 1⁄8" numbers. We can tell the "8" from the "5" by its position even in dim light—which is just about everywhere anymore.
Long ago, a toga-clad geezer much like me no doubt lamented the inability of his grandson Frivolous Minimus to read a sundial. And even earlier patriarchs probably groused that youngsters couldn’t keep track of the moon phases. Of course, they didn’t have to manage school activities, flight schedules and trading deadlines to the split-second, either.
I will concede the boost in accuracy that the shift from face time has brought us, but it seems we only squander that efficiency on more frenetic busyness. Even worse, I suspect that watch faces will soon be among the few faces I can still identify.