Telling Time by a Broken Clock

by rthieme on November 28, 1998


Millennial fever throws into relief our deep-seated belief that the universe ticks to the rhythms of a human clock.

We superimpose a skein of time-and-space on the raw material of our experience. That raw material is unknowable, said Kant, a numinous world beyond the interpretive grids we humans lay down like dotted lines on a map. It’s even harder to imagine “imaginary time,” a fourth spatial dimension that signifies time that existed before time existed.

Time is big business. We’re all dealing with accelerated rates of change, and we’re told that the rate of change is changing, so we can’t know what’s coming except in short bits. Long range possibilities fan out in a spectrum like paths never taken by sub-atomic particles, shimmering in our minds like a mist before it dissolves.

When AOL bought Netscape, some programmers at Netscape were shocked. They hadn’t seen that, even in cyberspace, economics is one “good enough” way to describe what happens, even if economics is as imprecise as physics. Physics, says Stephen Hawking, never describes what’s “out there.” At best, our descriptions are a “good enough” fit for our observations. The map is not the territory but a good enough map will get us where we’re going.

We are no more able to escape our descriptions of experience than light can escape a black hole. We are always only describing ourselves, our solipsistic post-modern selves, and can see at best the contours of our collective thinking … and beyond those contours, intimations of why we evolved to think this way.

We are learning to describe the bars of the digital cage we are learning to inhabit. Those who have caught millennial fever think they can see through the bars to the Real Thing, they think they can hear in the calibrated cogs of our mechanical calendar the ticking of the Real Clock.


Yet all of our paradigms (I know! give me a better word and I’ll use it!) do seem to point toward a paradigm of paradigms. That won’t let us out of our cage but it does extend the horizon of meaning and possibility.

Time for an example.

Extended communities of every size – families, businesses, religions – have memories that bind them together. My brother and I have long been the only survivors of our nuclear family. When he called the other day to ask if I remembered a childhood song, we realized that we were the only two people on earth who knew the words. The fact of that shared memory made us family.

When religions use symbols to bind otherwise disparate collections of people into a community, they do it through songs and narratives and poems, imaginary histories. But those “historical” stories (history is our myth, remember) are fused with archetypal symbols that point toward the numinous, the unknowable. The truth of whatever is “out there” is fused to the symbols by which we sense its presence in our lives. Time is simultaneously tamed and made sacred, organized in a way that lets us share a story and also believe that the story is about What’s Really So. Successful religions graft our individual stories onto the trunk of a bigger myth, illuminating the mundane particulars of our existence and making us players in a cosmic drama.

The Christian religion, for example, organizes the calendar in six seasons, one derived from solar myths (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany) and one from lunar (Lent-Easter-Pentecost). When we look at the six stages of developmental growth symbolized by those seasons, we discover a spiral of transformation that looks like a fractal, leading always to another new beginning. The six Christian seasons, in short, are one model of transformation grounded in a particular story that connects people to what’s “out there.”

That spiral, that fractal, is replicated in other religions, other myths as well. Each successful myth or religion, in other words, is a paradigm or model of reality that works because it participates in a larger paradigm, bringing that paradigm of paradigms one notch closer to ourselves. That’s what makes it useful. That paradigm of paradigms may in turn participate in a paradigm of paradigms of paradigms. Who knows? What matters is that we connect with a symbolic structure that discloses the numinous or at least that the numinous is more than something we imagine.

That paradigm of paradigms is intertwined with another spiral, the double helix of our genetic material. Our genetic code includes the pattern of various religions and spiritualities. Otherwise they couldn’t happen. We humans are hardwired to remember how to become more fully human. Our religions are training programs that enable us to bootstrap ourselves to the next level once we turn ourselves on. Operating systems becoming functional.

Who do you want to be today?

Families, businesses, religions – all are bound by myths that are bigger than we are. And all organizational structures are morphing into forms appropriate to the digital world. In retrospect, we will see our current structures the way Christians, for example, see remnants of what they call “pagan” myths in their stories. Every transformation includes and transcends its recent inheritance, in this case, ancient tales of the miraculous (i.e. that which is unpredictable from inside the old paradigm). Pixels glowing with unpredictable patterns in the darkest time of the year.

Trying to understand what’s happening using old words, old images, old paradigms is like telling time by broken clocks. The landscape created by speech, writing, print is being terraformed by digital humans, rocking in our boots, out of joint with our times. We are riding a ship on the river of time as the ship is being built. It will take time to finish that ship, and when we do, we will already have been becoming something else.

In the meantime, we live between, snickering at those who expect something immense in the Year 2000 because they are rowing to the rhythm of a river overflowing its banks, flooding our town and cities, rising like rain into the mystified sky.

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