Analog guy


I have often thought that I’m an analog guy in a digital world.  I haven’t really been sure what that meant but I expected to figure it out.  I’m still learning and growing and I am increasingly convinced that everything unfolds on exactly the right schedule.

I have been wearing inexpensive digital watches to work for a few years.  The alarm and stopwatch are good tools to have.  At the same time, though, these watches are disposable, something that I have strongly disliked.  Even if I could replace the battery on a $25 watch, the battery alone would be half the cost of a new watch.  That is by the manufacturer’s design.

That was part of why I bought the last one, with its promise of a ten-year battery.  If you are close to my age then you can see where this is going.  After two years, the band broke, creating the same predicament.  There’s something spooky about imagining this watch keeping time in a landfill for eight years but that’s where it is going.

Rather than lurch to the next throw-away digital, I looked for my analog watches.  I have three of them, nothing fancy or high-end, but water-resistant and with a date feature.  That’s good enough.  I needed a jeweler to replace all of the batteries and two of the bands and for about $100, they are up and running again, with just a bit of frayed cotton and cracked leather in a landfill.

These watches will confuse the students with whom I work.  There are few persons under 18 years old, maybe older, who can read an analog watch.  I’m not sure when, in analog sort of way, we started to teach digital-only timekeeping.  The jeweler’s jaw dropped when I told her that I probably don’t work with any students who can read any of the time pieces in her shop.

I suppose that fact alone is an answer to what I meant by being an analog guy in a digital world.  There seems to be more to it, though.

Analog time is human time.  What time is it?  In digital time, 9:47 is the same as analog time’s quarter-of.  Do those two minutes, give or take, matter?  They do in a digital world, where deadlines happen at times that are called, in analog terms, sharp, but not so much in a human world, where time is an extra pause, a breath, a glance or gesture, a heartbeat.  Do I have time to use the bathroom and be comfortable before a big event, or time to gather my thoughts before I answer?  In a world of quarter-of, I probably do, but in a world of 9:47, I probably do not.

There are some moments in life that come with a sharp distinction, the kind of thing that in movies are set to dramatic background music.  In one instant, life is a certain way, and in the next, life is different and cannot go back to how it was two instants ago, but even that term instant is an analog term.  In digital time, you were, say, still single, or unemployed, or a student, at, say 1:03:25 PM, and then suddenly married, or employed, or a graduate, at 1:03:26 PM.  It happens like that sometimes.

More often changes happen gradually.  We learn and grow, we love, we move, we marvel at life, in terms that are real, but fuzzier.  At the end of his movie The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin gave a speech in which cautioned against machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.  He talked about life being “a wonderful adventure.”  I don’t know.  Chaplin was talking about something much bigger than I am here, and he was smarter and more accomplished than I will ever be, but maybe there is a tiny bit of a connection between machine minds and digital time. 

More than that, analog time is humble.  When we both tell time according to a set of mechanical gears, it’s understood that your measurement and mine, your experience and mine, will vary a bit.  Your watch can say 9:47 and mine can say 9:48 and we can both be right, or wrong, and it’s OK.  Those measurements have overlapping confidence intervals.  When you tell time according to a pocket computer that is in constant communication with satellites, that always “knows” where and when it is, there are only right and wrong, and I suggest, again, that this does not feel human to me.

I’m not knocking punctuality, or precision, or confidence.  These are certainly worthwhile goals and sometimes essential.  Speaking as Just One Analog Guy in a Digital World, I find that I feel a bit more comfortable, a bit more human, glancing at my wrist to see the time, give or take, to make a plan for what happens next, give or take.