The Clock Manifesto

A short conference presentation on how culture and environment structure our perception of time.

The concept of Newtonian absolute time is more pervasive than we realize. It is implicit in the format of all our measuring systems. It is in our measuring units. There is as yet no other format commonly available. Though this absolute time—common clock time—provides an effective and coherent language of description, it is less adequate as a language of control. It is inadequate for describing in simple terms the relation of systems which continuously evolve each other, metabolizing what did not exist for them before into the process of actively becoming. Though traditionally poetic this is now a technical problem. A measurement language for timing our intervention into a system that is actively evolving is essential to the science of control.

The freedom to reconceptualize time is necessary if we are to have rules for selecting the clock whose time has a shape that optimizes the mapping of information from the phenomena into equivalences (units) which preserve it and reduce the opacity of the controllable phases. Such condensed information then is available as an effective base for entering the on-going control loop with intervention designed to a purpose.

We have heard from a historian how each different way of using absolute time units illuminates historical terrain so as to throw different information into shadow. Our skill in using the one common time format and its variations has led us through centuries of search for simplification without examining the implicit decision to continue following this convention—as one of many possible choices. Watching children being taught about time and knowing the variant shapes of time (like religions) in different cultures, professions, and over history as presented here, makes one aware that the clock format we commonly use is a convention. This clock convention is being examined in this meeting. Like all absolute conventions that constrain science, it is first broken informally into irreconcilable parts each fitted to a special purpose. When scientists of the different uses do speak, they know the Tower of Babel that develops until the different formats are specified. Only then can the novel facts, given existence by the more specified perspectives, by recombined into a new convention which will last until obsolescence again strikes it down.

But what are the constraints imposed by the old convention: The nonlinear phenomena of biologic and other control loops have defied simplification with a linear clock. I believe solution to this problem is obscured by the nature of common clock design: The time units that we commonly use are derived from one particular type of periodic relation—the relative periodicity of two systems in which at least one has little significant influence on the other. For example, man’s biological clock had little influence on the earth’s rotation. Given this constraint the way we must map the timing of two biological systems that have evolved a common control purpose, and a periodicity that optimizes their exchange of control information, is humorously awkward. Thus, ordinarily, biological clock A is mapped onto the mean solar standard time clock Y, the referent clock; biological clock B, which is to be joined to A in a control loop, is mapped similarly onto clock Y; then, these maps of A and B on Y are compared. If a relative A to B periodicity is noted which can be expressed after being filtered through this system of notation, a relation between A and B is said to exist. The filter may not be obvious, being implicit in the structural choice of units for representing equivalent periods of time. For example, changes of periodicity of heart rate and breathing are simply mapped onto the wrist watch, both being averaged over a period of a minute or less and their “relative” timing is obvious—provided one is not interested in how heart rate and respiratory rate evolve each others changing.

Those relations that, like respiration and pulse, easily fit the mapping of two variables onto a single third implicit in the unit of measure are called simple; and those that don’t need further observation in order to be simplified.

Biological systems once squeezed through this time deriving procedure can be characterized in terms of present stationary levels and rates between levels. Phenomena then can be described in past time or in probabilistic future anchored in the past. But the rich dialogue at the growth edge of change—in the present available to control—which our technology now could assimilate and use for real-time control, appears overly complex within this traditional system of simplification: If living, growing, changing as-it-occurs cannot be simply displayed, we cannot actively and delicately join the rich control dialogue which resonating biological systems must use for maintaining ecological equilibrium. This dialogue we know among ourselves but deny to inferior systems where observer and observed likewise approximate closely.

Even if we accept the notion that all such anastomotically joined systems have a simple time relation for evolving each other as they move into the very tip of their moments, we have no formal language with which to describe this timing control over becoming. To illustrate this time control in human terms: The teacher who measures her information output to a child by the wall clock instead of carefully monitoring the time matching of her own capability to the opening and closing of the child’s control moments, the moments when they communicate the most change choice, will not be an effective organizer of the child in terms of her intent.

If we wish to construct a control timing map to simplify and display the system of two adjacent cells, or of two people, changing in response to each other’s changing as they join a mutual control dialogue, we need to explore new time formats. A time map that shapes differently, so as optimally to display territories of choice density where intervention is more likely to be effective, might allow us to formalize the science that is now preserved in hand waving.

The hope that motivates these remarks comes from a belief in the potential simplicity of processes as basic to evolution as the relative periodicity and timing of information flow between individuals who approximate in sharing species structure and environment.

I gather from my biological and physicist friends that the wish to use one better known cell or particle to sense the changing of another even as they change each other is frustrated primarily by the lack of a way to quantify these kinds of relations. Let me again illustrate: Please think of how you would use the equivalences of a regular clock to get at the following simplicity of timing that even a child knows in his way of responding if not in awareness: Two people shake hands or look into each other’s eyes, or two cells communicate enough to join in a communal self-organizing function. The ordinary clock will allow us to speak of these two people shaking each other’s hands as if first A’s shook B’s, then B’s shook A’s, in infinitesimal moments. Using this kind of ping pong format, careful measurement does not give formal insight into the time language—the way the handshake actively evolves its transitions, although this is important control information.

The ping pong format allows one to gain the kind of information that can be obtained by a foreigner who can ask “where is the railway station?”, but cannot engage in more complex conversation.

Imagine a creature of foreign species who, with our measuring tools, is seeking to identify the control exchange of a handshake or of two animals barking or rubbing as he might see it. He could only apprehend the sequences of behavior of each animal. He would not know the time language that we use in speaking through our handshake or our talking. Two people speaking to each other or solving problems together become components timed to their conversation in a way that is different from that in which each would speak alone. They are organized by their conversation as well as organizing it. The self-organizing process itself is a language which even a child knows. There is a simplicity here that would escape the observing super creature watching us with a traditional clock. We all know that the same energy or words or action applied in or out of phase with the other person’s resonant timing has entirely different control significance. We use this time-control topology to add a delicateness to our communication that multiplies variability by many magnitudes without demanding changes in the timeless symbols we formally regard as our descriptors. It is our difficulty in instructing computers in the nuance of handwaving that requires us to rework our conception of time.

I believe that this rich dialogue of evolving control we know with each other is in the interaction of all closely approximated biological systems—each slight shift meets responsive shifts as the elements quicken to each other’s changings. The weak shifts grow as they meet responsive changings and enter into feedback loops which periodically stabilize, and unstabilize, acting as organizers of other slight shifts. The information which grows as stability shifts toward instability enters into the closely woven edge of change in a design whose redundancy has yet to be captured. Yet redundancy must exist for a reliable control to be achieved. This growth edge of change enables a community of two or more similar elements to balance so that novel change organizes and triggers other growing variations into an evolving variety—that just allows this assembly to metabolize that which was just beyond the border of its organizing power—that which did not exist for it. This opening into the unknown is best handled by creatures who use weak variation to evolve control behavior, in the Darwinian tradition. It is this power to metabolize or evolve irrelevance into relevance, noise into signal available to choice, that characterizes the kind of system whose study most clearly requires going beyond absolute time.

There are those who will say that absolute time, the time of our ordinary clocks, makes our basic scientific structure more simple. As McCulloch makes clear: “If the base structure of an epistemological system is not rich enough, it can only distract us from the very conceptual parsimony that we in science seek to develop.”

There is a chink in the wall. Once he sees through and then knows the wall is there, the scientist is captured by a new question, and turns to his powerful strategy of search—his expertness in groping. But groping is often slowed by failure to transfer among us that point of perspective which allows the new question: How do we go beyond absolute time? Partly out of my delight in whimsical formalism, and partly to bolster courage, let me now summarize these remarks in the form of a declaration:

The Clock Manifesto

1. We declare ourselves free of the constraint of the single clock.

2. We see the need to use well defined different clocks, which may not be coherently relatable to each other.

3. We expect that these clocks will be to some degree mappable into each other, but recognize that, for these clocks to be fundamentally different, there must be loss of information in this cross mapping process.

4. We suggest that these multiple clocks be chosen (designed) to meet the requirement of the problem space in question.

5. By attending to the topology implicit in the clock format being used, we hope it will be possible to develop a simplified notation for the timing natural to interactive systems that have the property of evolving each other.

6. We expect this relatively unconstrained approach to time will eventually provide a richer and less tautological multiclock perspective and will allow a more encompassing theory of time to develop.