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Just One Question for Carl Steadman
Dec 24, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

Carl Steadman -- the creator of Placing, the keeper of 99 Secrets, the owner of a Diana Bear, and the future inventor of Carl's Baffling Baffler Fun-Toy -- was kind enough to be the first contestant in my new obvious gameshow titled "Just One Question."

MS: What do you want for Christmas?

STEADMAN: I want things to work.

Imagine a world in which everything's broken. A world in which the spigot and the drain are on the same end of the tub, so you have to slosh water around to get it clean. A world in which the stoplights turn red at two in the morning, even though no one else is around for miles. A world in which you have to turn the CD player on, even though you should just be able to press "play."

Now, take that world, and add in people, lots of people. Not people that fix things. People who just keep making more and more broken things, because, as far as you can tell, they like things that way. Broken. Because they don't seem to realize it's all broken, that none of it really works. At least, they don't admit to it. Maybe the people are broken. Maybe they wouldn't be so broken, if anything else actually worked.

That's the world I live in. And I'm beginning to suspect it's your fault.

This Christmas, it all comes down to my watch.

I stopped wearing a watch sometime this summer. It stopped working. The battery went dead. And then I realized -- it never really worked in the first place.

It starts with great minds like Danny Hillis's.

Danny Hillis, a pioneer in massively parallel computing, wants to build a millennium clock, a clock that ticks once a year. With a millennium clock, Hillis believes, we can take the long view. We can think about time, and the future, in a new way. What Hillis doesn't seem to realize is that we stopped thinking about time long ago. At the fin de millennium, the advance of time has come to an end. At least as it's represented in what matters -- in the things that I use every day, like my watch. The watch that's always been broken, because of people like Danny Hillis, people who want to build new things, instead of fixing what we've already got. Because of people like Danny Hillis, the '90s has been the decade that time stood still.

Previous decades have given us new ways to view, and interact with, time. The '60s saw the electric clock become a reality for most households; the '70s gave us the inexpensive quartz wristwatch; the '80s, the ubiquitous digital alarm clock. More recently, time has gotten so cheap that a clock can be incorporated into almost anything, and it has. There's a clock in my oven, in my microwave, in my TV, in my VCR, in my computer, in my phone, in my pager, in my fax machine, and, yes, in my alarm clock and my broken watch.

The cumulative effect of all this time, though, is a time out of joint. I might just be restating the old joke that a man with two clocks never knows what time it is -- and in a way, I am. But what it points out is that time is only useful when it's also someone else's time. An otherwise inconsequential five minutes becomes significant when I'm five minutes late for my interview, or when I miss the first five minutes of South Park. (So how did Kyle's turd come to life?)

If time only has meaning in relation to other people's timepieces, why do clocks work independently of one another? Why doesn't my watch have the same time as your watch? Why do I have to adjust my watch for daylight savings, adjust it again for a new time zone when I'm traveling, or even set the time in the first place? Why doesn't my watch know what time it is?

Before we got networked coffeehouses, surely we could have gotten networked timekeeping. Now, admittedly, the standup's old line of a nation of millions with VCRs that blink 12:00 may soon not only be time-worn, but decade-bound. Some VCRs from Sony now have an automatic clock set feature, which will scan cable or broadcast channels for one transmitting time information -- most PBS stations broadcast a time signal. It adds a few dollars to the cost of each unit. You'd think they'd be able to do that with my watch.

Well, they can. Since 1956, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been broadcasting universal time set to an atomic clock in digital format, accurate to the ten-billionth of a second. And this fall, the NIST began broadcasting its time signal with new, more powerful transmitters, allowing clocks or watches with miniature receivers to pick up the signal. So where, I ask myself, as I look for a real, working watch this holiday season, are all the products that take advantage of this not-so-revolutionary technology? It shouldn't add more than US$10 or so to the cost of a device, but the only watch I can find is a German-made timepiece available through the Sharper Image catalog that sells for US$899, which was engineered for the older, weaker time signal.

It gets worse: fax machines, phones with Caller ID, and answering machines all expect you to set their internal clocks. But since 1988, the NIST has made universal time available to dial-up modem users. Since fax machines already contain modem technology, and Caller ID is already receiving and processing digital data, I can't reason why these devices couldn't or shouldn't set their times for you.

Time is also transmitted via the Global Positioning System, or GPS. A network of 24 GPS satellites provides location information to GPS receivers anywhere on the earth. The cost of a low-cost GPS receiver has come down to under $150; the first mass-market application of GPS will likely be as a factory-installed option for your luxury car or sport utility vehicle. But when your Explorer contains route-planning and real-time directions via GPS, I won't be surprised if you still have to set the dashboard clock by hand.

I remember when I had to set the clock on my Apple II every time I booted up. It hasn't gotten much better. It's indicative of the current state of the Mac that, for a computer that knows the time, the date, and the time zone, you still have to check a box to adjust the clock to Daylight Savings Time. Windows 95 isn't much better: a wizard will walk you through online registration when you first install the operating system, but it won't set your clock for you.

And that's just my watch.

But that's all I really want for Christmas. I want it to work. Make it work.

Make. It. Work.



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