Bolivian Congress decides to turn back time

Turning the clock back: The new ‘clock of the south’ on the Bolivian Congress building ©

In a show of national pride and identity, the Bolivian government has reversed the direction and digits on its Congress building’s clock. Is this a thoughtful symbol or just a waste of time?

‘The times they are a-changin’ Bob Dylan sang, reflecting the political and social upheaval of the 1960s. However, this week Bolivia witnessed a more literal leftist revolution. In a declaration of identity, the government changed the clock on its Congress building so that the numbers and hands run anticlockwise.

‘Who says the clock always has to turn one way? Why do we always have to obey? Why can’t we be creative?’ the foreign minister enthused at a press conference.

There are geographical reasons to back the new clock. Whereas in the northern hemisphere a sundial’s shadow runs clockwise, in the southern hemisphere it runs counter clockwise. As the modern clock is a representation of the sundial, this ‘clock of the south’ now follows the movement of the sun.

The change is also a show of national pride which is very important to a country trying to shed its colonial past. In recent years, alongside the red, yellow and green national flag, Bolivian state buildings now also fly the distinctive rainbow-coloured wiphala, a native flag that dates back to the Incas before the Europeans arrived in the New World.

Changing how we measure time is often associated with revolution. After the French Revolution, the new republican government in 1792 abolished the Gregorian Calendar and started again at Year One. Sunday and saints’ days were associated with the Catholic Church, so the week was changed to ten days with just one day of rest. New names were given to the days and months.

Each day was made of ten 100-minute long hours. All this caused so much trouble for officials calculating the date and for merchants trying to do business overseas that Napoleon abolished the system, along with the republic, when he made himself emperor in 1804.

Yet much of our measurement of time is arbitrary. A year is the time the Earth takes to orbit the sun, of course, and a day how long it takes for the Earth to turn on its axis. But our division of time into minutes and hours happened because 60 was a number favoured by Babylonian priests, 4,000 years ago. Is Bolivia right to suggest it is time for a change?

Wasting time

Some think that if Bolivia wants to assert its identity, it could do it in a more worthwhile way than reversing a clock. It is not so much a symbol of colonialism as a basic and convenient tool. Contrary to the foreign minister’s words, reversing a clock is anything but creative.

Others believe the decision to reverse time is clearly not intended to be taken too seriously. It is, however, a good reminder not to take anything for granted and that there may well be other ways of doing things. Any act that makes us rethink our most basic assumptions must be good.

You Decide

  1. Is Bolivia’s reverse clock a good reminder that things can always be different or is it simply a waste of time?
  2. Can it ever be a bad for a country to try and assert its own national identity?

Activities

  1. In pairs, think of five things we often take for granted that could be changed to make people think about them in new ways.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’, research why we measure time in the way that we do. Create a report.

Some People Say...

“There is no bigger waste of time than worry about measuring time.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care which way a clock turns in Bolivia?
The reverse clock is a way of the country celebrating its heritage and what makes it unique, but it is also a challenge to conventional ways of looking at the world. If it makes us realise that we do not usually question the way we look at time, then it has served a purpose.
Doesn’t a decimal clock actually make more sense?
In some ways. Our decimal system of numbers and our habit of measuring many things in multiples of ten comes from the fact that we have ten fingers, making it a convenient number for counting. But some people argue that more numbers divide into 60 and its factor 12, making it a much more convenient number for breaking time down into smaller units.

Word Watch

National
Bolivia’s tricolor flag was adopted in 1851. The wiphala is a 7x7 square rainbow patchwork.
French Revolution
This period of radical upheaval saw the end of the French monarchy and the beginning of a democratic republic. Its ideals were expressed in the famous slogan ‘Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.’
Gregorian
Also called the Christian calendar. In 1582 Pope Gregory introduced it to correct the earlier Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The calendar had slipped 11 days in the intervening period.
Catholic Church
The seven-day week was defined in the Old Testament of the Bible as the time it took God to create heaven and Earth. Before the French Revolution, the Catholic Church owned ten per cent of the land and collected taxes from peasants; the revolutionaries saw it as part of the old order. The later revolutionaries of the Soviet Union experimented with a five-day week between 1929 and 1940, with one day of rest.
Babylonian
Babylonia existed 4,000 years ago in the area that is now Iraq. Its mathematical system was based around 60 for astrological calculations.

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