The digital clock replaced the geometric sweep of the sun across the sky or hands across a clock face with the relentless march of discrete moments. Whether green, red, blue or pure white, its digits glow on automobile dashboards, bedside radios, kitchen appliances and countless varieties of consumer electronics.
When an analog clock stops due to a broken gear or an interrupted power supply, its hands are frozen in place, a monument to the instant of catastrophe. Under similar circumstances, digital clocks simply go blank (with rare exceptions: the clock on my grandfather’s desk, for example, whose digits were printed on small cards that would flip into place minute by minute). Should one resolve the problem, most digital clocks signal their distress by petulantly flashing the first instant of the day, and one of the burdens of modern life is returning from a vacation to find that a brief power outage has left your home temporally frozen at midnight.
This blinking 12:00 is a diagnostic device which informs us, “Something has happened, so please reset me.” Left unaddressed, however, a blinking 12:00 is an unrelenting reminder to anyone within eyeshot that a clock’s owner is unable or unwilling to reset her clock. Though it implies a rather uncomfortable relationship with the technology, this scarlet 12:00 is usually far from shameful—while it would be unthinkable to admit to one’s peers, “I don’t know how to use a computer mouse” or “I can’t tie my shoes,” it’s perfectly reasonable to point to a flashing 12:00 and simply say, “Oh, that. I simply can’t figure out how to set the damn thing.”
Of all the varied species of digital clock, the VCR display has become a particularly visible instance of such socially acceptable incompetence. Since the late 1980s,we have joked about not being able to program our VCRs, and a blinking 12:00 on a similarly inscrutable VCR can serve as a rhetorical device that humanizes people who might seem alltoo- enmeshed in a technology-saturated culture. In 1991, a journalist who asked, “Are rocket scientists the only ones whose VCR clocks don’t flash ‘12:00’ at them for weeks?” concluded with the admission from a bona fide rocket scientist that he himself was unable to set his VCR’s clock without the help of the user manual. Along these lines, the Arizona Republic society page once offered this item: “When Joyce Downey was at Barbara Barrett’s home for a Thelda Williams fund-raiser Wednesday night, she noticed a large-screen television with a painting of a Pentium processor above it. Underneath was the VCR with its telltale sign—a blinking clock. ‘The rest of us don’t need to feel so bad: Apparently, the head of Intel can’t work his either,’ said Downey, referring to Barbara’s husband, Craig Barrett, the chief operating officer of Intel.” When asked, media mogul Ted Turner said that he just hangs a washcloth over the flashing 12:00 on the VCR in his bedroom.
In recent years, a host of technological schemes have been set in place with the aim of eradicating the blinking 12:00, shifting the burden of resetting the time from a clock’s owner to the clock itself. The National Institute of Standards and Technology operates a radio station (WWVB) in Fort Collins, Colorado, which continually broadcasts the time as reported by their atomic clock. This radio signal, blanketing the continental United States (as well as much of Canada and Central America), allows any clock or wristwatch equipped with an antenna to reset itself automatically. Meanwhile, Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television stations across the country now include the current time in the same region of the broadcast signal as a program’s closed captioning. Since most new VCRs are designed to find this signal and set their clocks accordingly, a blinking 12:00 may soon be less a sign of incompetence than obsolescence.