The Dynamics of Progress: Time, Method, and Measure
by Samuel L. Macey
Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1989
In Chaucer’s day, an hour — as one twelfth of the daylight or of the night — varied between forty and eighty minutes, depending on the latitude and time of year. Since then our time measurements have become much more exact. Today the second is defined by the vibration of cesium 133 atoms — a standard altogether divorced from the relative inaccuracy of the solar system. Similarly, our irrational measures of length, area, weight, and volume were often related to the diverse sizes of man and varied widely in different jurisdictions until the metric system was devised, ostensibly based on a quadrant of the earth’s meridian. Yet, in 1960, even that system was divorced from the earth and redefined in terms of wavelengths of krypton86.
The development of increasingly precise measurements is an essential part of what Samuel Macey identifies as the West’s wide-ranging effort to rationalizehuman activity — to simplify and standardize the way we work and communicate with one another. In The Dynamics of Progress, Macey examines the history of such rationalizations as they have manifested themselves not only in temporal and spatial measurement but also in the development of language, numerical systems, and the processes of production, distribution, and finance. He identifies a symbiotic relationship among these different types of rationalization, demonstrating that without the rationalizing of time, weights and measures, numbers, and language, the scientific, technological, and industrial advances of the past three hundred years would have been inconceivable.
In addition to discussing rationalization in its various forms, Macey also addresses reactions against it (including the charge that increasing standardization and mechanization diminish the quality of human life) and closes with some observations on the future. Noting the remarkable extent to which the fruits of rationalization– the “Faustian cornucopia of material goods” created by the West — are being sought by other societies worldwide, Macey sees repercussions for both good and ill. On the one hand, increasing demands for material goods have the potential for spreading wealth and franchise around the globe; on the other hand, such demands are placing an ever-growing strain on the earth’s limited resources. How we address the challenge posed by this depletion of resources, Macey suggests, will be the ultimate test of our rationalizing powers.
Samuel L. Macey is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Victoria, general editor of the English Literary Studies Monograph Series, and president (1989-92) of the International Society for the Study of Time. Among his books are Clocks and the Cosmos: Time in Western Life and Thought and Patriarchs of Time: Dualism in Saturn-Cronus, Father Time, the Watchmaker God, and Father Christmas (Georgia, 1987).“