Keeping Time, Keeping Silent

What shape does a well ordered life take and how does one achieve such a thing? I certainly don’t have a story of personal triumph on this score to share with you, but I’m fairly certain that if I did it would focus on the re-ordering of a disordered relationship to time. Time, in fact, is the theme of a commencement address delivered by Paul Ford to the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The speech, titled “10 Timeframes”, addresses the changing frames by which we measure and understand our experience of time, from the farmer whose frames are the changing season to the computer scientist who works with nanoseconds.

Commencement addresses are difficult to do well or in any kind of original fashion, but Ford managed both and my excerpts here will not convey either the feel or the insight of the whole. That said, here are the fragments of Ford’s speech I want to bring into conversation with the second piece which I’ll get to in just a minute. After giving a few illustrative examples, Ford reminds his listeners of the following:

“So it’s only a few hundred years ago that people started to care about centuries, and then more recently, decades. And of course hours and minutes. And in the last 40 years we’ve got 86 trillion nanoseconds a day, and a whole industry trying to make every one of them count.”

He introduced the nanosecond by referring back to a book published in the early 1980’s on the history of the computer, The Soul of a New Machine. After quoting one engineer describing the significance of nano-seconds, Ford then tells his audience,”One of the engineers in the book burned out and quit and he left a note that read: ‘I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.'”

Ford, who is speaking to creative types who will design digital tools that other creative types will use to do all sorts of work, concludes: “And I want you to ask yourself when you make things, when you prototype interactions, am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? Am I going to help someone make order in his or her life, or am I going to send that person to a commune in Vermont?”

Perhaps it would not be so bad to be in a commune in Vermont, but Ford clearly understood that one engineer’s decision to be the product of exhaustion — exhaustion that resulted from continuous work within a frame of time that led to a disordered experience of life.

Many of the discontents and disorders associated with modernity, discontents and disorders that are exacerbated by the advent of digital culture, revolve around time. Ford reminds us that our experience of time has a history, a history intimately tied to our machines for measuring time as Lewis Mumford observed many years ago. Mumford’s observations about the mechanical clock, whose origins lie in medieval monasticism, segue nicely (and somewhat paradoxically) to the second piece.

“How Silence Works”, a transcript of Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston’s email interviews with Trappist monks in the Benedictine Order living in Quebec, also dwells on the shape of the well ordered life. As the title suggests, the interviews focus on the place of silence in the monastic life. Contrary to popular belief, the Trappists take no “vow of silence,” although silence is an integral part of their communal life. As with Ford’s piece, I encourage you to read the whole, it is brimming with timely wisdom and insight.

Out of the many passages that are worth noting in the email exchanges, I’ll draw your attention to two. The first ties in nicely with Ford’s concerns. Mesiano-Crookston asks, “Out of curiosity, do the monks in the cloister watch the daily news? Are you interested in cultural changes in the world?” In response one monk wrote,

“I wonder if a lot of the cultural complexity you refer to [in a previous question] seems interesting to people because they have lost so much consciousness of [their] ancestors and the long view afforded by a knowledge of history. If you don’t know history, everything today can seem quite novel. But in the larger context of the story of human history, much of what fascinates, today, is quite redundant.”

The practices of the monastery, including the practice of silence, a practice that has the collateral effect of slowing down time, yield a frame of time (to borrow Ford’s terminology) quite different from the frame of time most of us work with in our day to day life. Saying as much is probably stating the obvious. But without suggesting that we all take up the monastic life, it would seem that with smaller gestures we might come closer to an ordering of time that was, simply put, better for us. Perhaps taking a cue  from the monastic life, we might learn to cultivate small rituals that establish a more humane rhythm for our daily life. Such small gestures are certainly within the realm of the possible for most of us. We might find that such small gestures — micro-practices to borrow sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s wording — may have a considerable impact on the shape of our experience.

Asked whether they believed the practice of silence were beneficial for all people, one of the monks replied,

“I would say the cultivation of silence is indispensable to being human. People sometimes talk as if they were “looking for silence,” as if silence had gone away or they had misplaced it somewhere. But it is hardly something they could have misplaced. Silence is the infinite horizon against which is set every word they have ever spoken, and they can’t find it? Not to worry—it will find them.”

Perhaps. It is hard to quibble with a point so eloquently put; but while silence may indeed find us, I think that we ought also to do a little searching for it ourselves. At the very least, we should be prepared to receive it when it does find us. Perhaps then, in silence, we will find ourselves better able to recalibrate our frame of time and achieve something more closely resembling a well-ordered life.

One thought on “Keeping Time, Keeping Silent

  1. Thank you Michael, really another “timeless” piece. I am running off to San Francisco to pick up a Visa to go to Brazil and Rio + 20 and I don’t have any this second to respond. But want to. Because this is what I know is true, despite my very “dis-ordered” life and the pain I have recently felt most acutely due to my surrender of my inner time and my own silence to remain in touch with what’s really most important, to what has been broadcast as immediately so. It’s one of the reasons I think, that I am going to Rio. Not really for the overbooked, every second filled, constant chattering of the official UN meetings on Sustainable Development there but more for the indigenous groups who are also gathering, the spiritual leaders of all kinds, and those most in touch with the earth’s time and how we are actually effecting that in such negative ways.
    I will be celebrating the Summer Solstice there hopefully with people who can remind me of what I truly do know is most important about time — how I use it on this earth and in whose service?
    Writings like this post from you, remind me to find the time to think about that and try to remember to recreate my own silence and listen for that inner answer and look for the others also trying to take the time to share and listen to that.
    Thank you.

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