Proposed: The Digital Year

11Aug09

It will probably be a long time before anyone finds it advisable to tinker with the basic units of our calendar – weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia.  Ditto for other basic units of timekeeping.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate about what it would be like if someone did.

I saw a video, the other day, of a guy who could clap 13 times per second, or so he claimed.  I watched, but I didn’t time it.  It was pretty fast.  So what if we defined an “instant” as one-tenth of a second?  People would understand, almost immediately, that we were talking about something that happens super-fast in human terms – without having to resort to scientific nomenclature (e.g., “ten centiseconds“).

What would happen if we went in the other direction, and tried to develop a digital (i.e., base 10) relationship between seconds, minutes, hours, and the day?  There are 86,400 seconds in today’s 24-hour day.  To make it all work in base-10 numbers, we might shoot for 100,000 seconds in a day.  Then this “second of the future” would be just a bit faster than today’s second.

But if 10 seconds = 1 minute, and if 10 minutes = 1 hour, and if 10 hours = 1 day, then we would have only 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000 seconds in a day.  To get up to 100,000, we would need two additional levels.  We’d have to come up with names for them.  At present, let’s suppose we called them “moments” and “steps.”  So what if we had 10 seconds in a moment, 10 moments in a minute, 10 minutes in a step, 10 steps in an hour, and 10 hours in a day?  That’s 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 100,000.  A day would consist of 10 hours, 100 steps, 1,000 minutes, 10,000 moments, or 100,000 seconds.

This is conceivable, and conceivably convenient, although clearly impractical for the foreseeable future.  We weren’t even able and willing to transition to metric measurements of length and volume in the 1970s; we sure aren’t going to rejigger our clocks.  But to continue the hypothetical, what about days and years?  This is not so easy.  We can imagine a second of a different length, but a day is too obvious and too much a part of human behavior to ignore; and there is also a fixed 1:365 (sometimes 366) relationship between days and years.  And 365 is an odd number.

Maybe we could declare that there are 10 days in a fortnight, and 10 fortnights in a phase.  This would get us to 100 days.  Then what?  If we said there were 10 phases in a stage, we’d have 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000 days in a stage.  Or, if the “stage” and “phase” lingo seemed hokey, we could use more digitally oriented terminology (e.g., milliyear, centiday).

The problem at that point is that the calendar would be completely out of touch with natural events.  The shortest day of the year, for instance, would no longer be predictably December 21; it would just be 365 or 366 days after the last time we had a shortest day of the year.

That would be a problem.  But it might not be as much of a problem, or not exactly the kind of problem that a person might imagine.  We already make all kinds of adjustments for the fact that our calendar is out of touch with natural events.  For instance, the shortest day of the year in the Southern Hemisphere is June 21, not December 21.  Flowers bloom in the spring, but spring arrives at different times in different places, and global warming may also mean that spring in some places may arrive, in the future, in February or March rather than April or May.  The first day of winter typically comes long before or long after (or bears no relationship at all to) the first day of snowfall or freezing temperatures.  And unlike the situation in some cultures, our solar calendar essentially ignores the Moon, despite its effects upon human behavior.

There might even be some advantages to deliberately unlinking the calendar from natural events.  People might be more in touch with nature if they watch what it is actually doing, rather than assuming that it is doing what it always does at this time of year.  Also, for many people, the calendar would become mentally friendlier if it eliminated the annual connection between yearend (i.e., a time of reflection) and the shortest, darkest days of the year.  In everyday thought, digital calculations might make it easier to be aware that, say, the hot season (defined by e.g., average daily temperature) has already lasted for 40 days, and last time it lasted for about 50 days, so we’ve probably got only one more fortnight of beach weather before the weather turns cool. As another example, there is a big gap between the present measures of one year and one decade, in human terms.  That is, many important human events (e.g., relationships, wars, economic booms and busts) unfold on the scale of the 1,000-day period.  People who think consciously about 1,000-day periods may view many key aspects of life in a different and perhaps clearer way than do people who think in terms of years and decades.

In short, the calendar and the clock are artificial devices, used for human purposes.  Those purposes generally involve interactions with other people rather than with nature.  Interactions with people, unlike interactions with nature, may be more plainly understood in digital terms.  The old structures of 86,400 seconds in a day, and 36,524 (or 36,525) days in a century, are not just computationally awkward.  They are ancient artifices that – perhaps in some very important ways – prevent people from seeing their lives and activities clearly.

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