Playing Digital Time: My Ten Cents
A Way To Visualize Centuries, For Teachers and Other Tourguides.
Have you ever been at a party where you step out for two seconds, the house suddenly crashes down on all those still inside, and you have to use your memory to recall the seating positions of all party-goers to help identify the deceased? Hopefully this is an experience unique to Simonides alone (De Orat. 2.353). However, I bet we can still relate to Simonides’ subsequent ideas of perception, as Antonius describes them in Cicero’s De Oratore (2.357/8; translations are my own):
ea maxime animis effingi nostris quae essent a sensu tradita atque impressa; acerrimum autem ex omnibus nostris sensibus esse sensum videndi; quare facillime animo teneri posse ea quae perciperentur auribus aut cogitatione si etiam commendatione oculorum animis traderentur; ut res caecas et ab aspectus iudicio remotas conformatio quaedam et imago et figura ita notaret ut ea quae cogitando complecti vix possemus intuendo quasi teneremus.
Things which have been passed down or engraved by our faculty of sensation are most effectively molded on our minds. But the sharpest of all our senses is the sense of sight, so that things which are perceived by the ears or by thinking are able to be held most easily by the mind if they are also passed down to our minds with the help of the eyes; it follows that a certain shape and image and figure thus inscribe things hidden or far from the judgement of sight so that things which we can barely understand through thinking we hold as if by seeing.
Here Cicero is writing about memory with respect to how to be a good orator. Is this a trick that can help us in another facet of our lives — that is, in remembering historical dates? Humans are generally terrible with numbers. We quickly turn to counting on our hands. We do it as kids and, admit it, we still do it as adults. Personally, in elementary school, I wished all multiplication tables had the 9s table multiplication trick so I did not have to memorize numbers. Is there a similar trick that can help us see time, rather than arbitrarily memorize dates? Antonius continues with Simonides’ system:
His autem formis atque corporibus, sicut omnibus quae sub aspectum veniunt sede opus est, etenim corpus intellegi sine loco non potest. Quare (ne in re nota et pervulgata multus et insolens sim) locis est utendum multis, illustribus, explicatis, modicis intervallis; imaginibus autem agentibus, acribus, insignitis, quae occurrere celeriterque percutere animum possint; quam facultatem et exercitatio dabit, ex qua consuetudo gignitur…
But, just as for all things which come under our vision, there is a need for a residence for these forms and bodies, just as a body cannot be understood without a place. Thus, lest I be tedious and extravagant on a known and common affair, many locations must be used, locations that are clear, disentangled, and at moderate intervals; also images that are powerful, sharp, distinguished, which are able to come upon and strike the mind quickly; practice will give this ability, from which habit springs…
As a Rome Fellow last year, I had to begin learning how to be a teacher and used the benefits of presenting Latin texts in (and about) ancient sites — loci in locis. I struggled with memorizing dates and wondered how I could share a conception of time if it always slipped from my mind. I needed the benefits of tempora in locis. I needed a location in which to place time in clearly organized physical intervals. And I found it, a location I have always had, which I could take with me outside of Rome, which I can use for the rest of my life. And you can too! After reading Cicero’s De Oratore, I now become a digital infomercial orator on a new product, a tool based on Simonides’ memory palace technique. I call it… Digital Time! Spoiler alert: it’s all in the hands.
Back when I was learning to play piano, my grandmother chastised me for how lucky I was to have a piano in the apartment. When she was a little girl, she would come home from school and practice piano, despite not having such an instrument in the house. She had cut out and taped sheets of paper together with all 88 black and white keys drawn on. This anecdote was surely to encourage me to practice more, but I was always at awe to think of her tapping on paper keys and conjuring up the subsequent musical sounds. It was this story that locked in me an admiration of the resourceful communicative tool of hands in everyday life — from the vulgar to the ingenious. Hands, powered by the imagination, are a visual guide that you can take, and can take you, anywhere!
Introducing Digital Time! You’ll be using your fingers — digiti in Latin — your digits. To begin, lay your hands out in front of you, palms down, like you are about to do the 9s multiplication trick, or play on my grandma’s paper piano. This is the first millennium. Each finger, or digit, is a century, and tempus fugit, time flees left to right. If you are a teacher showing this to your students (a girl can dream!), stand with your back to your students and extend both arms to your right side, speaking from your right shoulder and inviting them to mimic your hands.
The 9th century is the 800s.
The difference between ordinal and cardinal numbers is confusing even in adulthood. Ordinal tells the order of something in a list (first, second, third), while cardinal numbers simply say how much there is (one, two, three). Digital Time might give a visual clarification of how these are related with regard to centuries.
Each finger flexes down to go through a century. The left pinky as the first century goes through the cardinal numbers 1–100 CE, the left ring finger 101–200 CE, and left middle finger 201–300 CE, all the way to the right pinky’s 901–1,000 CE.
The cardinal numbers included in the 9th century are 801–900, yet the century itself goes by an ordinal number, “9th,” since there have been eight centuries before it. Most of the years represented by this finger will be in the 800s, which is why it is convenient to see that when the 9th century digit is flexed, there are 8 fingers to the left of it, hence, 9th century is 800s.
If it is time to reach a new millennium, simply lift your two hands up a layer. Now the fingers represent the 11th-20th centuries. We are beginning to play with our two hands as millennium lego pieces, slowly creating a tower that will scrape the sky of the future. If we want to reach the 21st century, move up to the third lego layer and flex your left pinkie: you have reached 2019!
Time always moves left to right, but Point Zero reflects the way we count.
Some of you may be too proud to admit having issues recognizing centuries in the Common Era (CE), and perhaps it truly never caused you problems. But even you smarties can admit that at first, Before Common Era (BCE) was terrifying. That’s where Point Zero comes in.
As we stack up millennium CE lego blocks, we notice that time always moves left to right, with every block’s first century on the left pinkie. Now we will countdown from our 21st century down to 1st century to Point Zero to see what needs to happen here in Digital Time.
As we cross over Point Zero, we must transfer our two hands to the left side of our body, like we are playing lower notes on my grandma’s paper piano. As a teacher, you can dramatically shift your hands to the left, speaking with your students from your left shoulder. This is the first millennium block BCE. Now, as we keep playing the centuries in reverse chronological order, right to left, our counting goes up! The right pinky is 1st century BCE, the right ring finger is 2nd century BCE, all the way to the left pinkie’s 10th century BCE.
The 5th century BCE is the 400s BCE.
The BCE fingers are a little different than their CE counterparts. As seen earlier, the CE fingers count up 100 years. The BCE fingers, however, count DOWN 100 years, not up. The 5th century is represented by the right thumb, which immediately strikes 500 BCE and, as it flexes down, goes from 499 to 401. The more it flexes down, the more it approaches the number seen by the fingers between the flexed finger and Point Zero, so in this case, 400 BCE. This is due to the countdown to Point Zero as we move left to right in the BCE blocks, as opposed to the count-up after Point Zero in the CE blocks.
Should we choose to explore an older millennium, it is time to dig in the dirt and move our lego block down a layer, with the 11th century BCE on the right pinky to the 20th century BCE on the left pinky. The CE blocks rise like skyscrapers, while the BCE blocks take root like catacombs, which are basically underground skyscrapers.
Practice creates a habit — the habit of playing Digital Time.
Fellow armchair time-travelers! Now that the ground rules for this instrument have been reached, its repetitive use can create images that leave history a bit less obscure and unfathomable. I found it difficult to reach this point with my students since we were working on site without a drawing board, but their understanding became clear when I eventually started quizzing them, “what finger is the 8th century BCE?” (middle left), “and how about 19th century?” (ring right). Their answers came more quickly the more I used it at different sites in our tour.
The key, as with most things, is practice. While reading or listening to content that brings up a century or date, I automatically imagine where I am in our catacomb-skyscraper structure, and flex the corresponding finger. It brought me great joy to see a student bend her finger when I mentioned a century in front of a sculpture without a follow-up quiz. Pretty soon, quick associations take root and your imagination can start adding flourishes.
When was the Renaissance? My students found this especially useful at the Vatican: the two thumbs of the 15th and 16th century, more or less; two thumbs up for the art, two thumbs down for some rough social norms. The Baroque period is the Baroque-en right pointer finger of the 17th century, while the left pointer finger (14th cent.) reeks of the Black Plague. The 18th century is the rebellious middle finger of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions.
As a Classicist, you can do some crossed jazz hands for the Roman Republic and Empire: right hand for the Republic (~5th-1st centuries BCE), left hand for the Empire (~1st-5th centuries CE).
Different finger muscles will develop based on what the topic of study is. If Late Roman Republic and Early Roman Empire is your jam, get ready for super strong pinkies! For Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, the right thumb and pointer finger will be hard at work. This kind of differentiation made me think of a sensory homunculus figure with variously sized fingers, yet the original homunculus himself makes clear why this tool has a lot of potential.
Common sense is at the tips of your fingers!
By combining our sense of sight with our sense of touch, Digital Time allows the creation of memory in a signified palace of sorts. We are using some of our most sensitive tools of perception to make history a bit more personal, more engaging, and more fun.
Visualize the growing skyscraper of the future and the endless mysterious catacombs of the past. Everyone can have a slightly different version, based on their imagination, their interests, and attitudes. If a skyscraper presupposes an idea of progress that someone does not mesh with, they can think of the future as a wobbly jenga game. Use your senses how you see fit. I am also using my big homunculus mouth to blab about Digital Time because:
Sharing is caring.
Here are my ten cents. What is mine is yours, if you want to add play to your own practice. I leave plenty of space and time for different applications of this product: may it be as detailed and imaginative as you see fit! I merely provide a visual and tactile tool to deal with, no, play with, the ethereal concept of time. What does your Digital Time look like?
Sign up to receive email updates about new articles