How might we judge the importance of an object? In ME 200 this quarter, we are taking a long view to approach this question. While the ultimate end result will be to judge a group of automobiles and deliver an award, we are starting with a series of lectures and discussions that force the students to think about how they might determine organizing principles using information and perspective on hand.

Ironically, we won't be discussing automobiles at all for a number of weeks, instead offering experts from the fields of archeology, technology, culture and psychology.

In class last week we put an exercise in front of the students that required some quick thinking, teamwork and -- like it or not -- the creation of an organizing principle. The Feiber/Brennan clock exercise places students in small groups (4-6 persons) and hands them a stack of 11 sheets of paper, each displaying a picture and description of a clock. The only instruction for the students is that they must sort the clocks in 20 minutes. There is no instruction or guidance provided as to how to organize the clocks. The students don't know the clocks beforehand, but they can use any tool at their disposal during the exercise (their laptops, phones, Google, etc). The goal is to encourage the students to think about what an organizing principle means and how they can work with their classmates to develop their own.

There are three forces at play here in the exercise that produce interesting discussions and results:

  • Singles/Multiples: The lot is a combination of one of a kind objects (there is one Prague Astronomical Clock) and mass produced items (there are many Sony HFC-59 alarm clocks).
  • Object variability: The lot represents a wide range functions, styles, regions and eras of construction.
  • Time: Only 20 minute is allowed for the entire exercise.

Here are the results of our exercise from last week, with students providing their explanations below:

Group 1

(via David Herman) Our organizing principle was based primarily on the overall perceived impact that each timekeeping device had in any number of disciplines. We considered and evaluated the clocks based on their merit in fields of technology, culture, design, innovation, and more, so as to better understand the various impacts that such devices could have, in general. No two devices, we argued, could be viewed in the same light due to the individual nature and impact that they had.

We evaluated the eleven clocks using this criteria, which led us to determine the significance of the clocks in this order:
(From most significant, to least)
1. John Harrison H4 Chronometer
2. Prague Astronomical Clock
3. Su Song Astronomical Clock
4. Clock of the Long Now
5. Sony 8FC-59 Clock
6. Japanese Clock
7. Wells Cathedral Clock
8. Bracket Clock
9. Longcase Clock
10. Elizabeth Tower
11. Carriage Clock

With the John Harrison H4 Chronometer, for instance, we judged it to be historically significant for a number of reasons. A first of its kind, this device was truly revolutionary in affecting a number of fields ranging from technology to exploration. As the first chronometer, it was instrumental in aiding with navigation as it allowed for a more accurate representation of longitudinal traversal. In doing so, it accelerated the age of European exploration and colonialism. Furthermore, it set the precedent for later chronometer developments which continue to affect us.

Using our established criteria, we judged the carriage clock to be the least historically significant as we did not think that, on the whole, it contributed to the large-scale impact we were looking for. The carriage clock was developed to be portable and travel-able, which, while important, was not revolutionary for its time. It resembled other then-contemporaneous clocks, which further led us to question its significance. In serving, in our minds, as "just another clock," we gauged it to be more-or-less insignificant.

Group 2

(via Michael Beck) Given very little information or context concerning the clocks laid before us, our group did what any savvy college kid would do; we consulted google. As we sifted through the thousand of links, reading through the unverified truths that the Internet is so great at providing, we stumbled upon a fascinating metric. Our assignment was to gauge the significance of each of these clocks and rank them accordingly. We realized that no metric for judgement could have been more objective and data-driven than the information google had on them. So we tabulated the number of links google came up with for each clock and ranked them from most links to fewest.

With 169,000,000 links, "The Clock of the Long Now" was the winner. With only 10,300 the "John Harrison H4 Chronometer" had the fewest. Of course, the utility of these numbers can be argued. It is likely that many of those links are of little relevance to the subject. But the results are interesting nonetheless. Much like a Klout Score these numbers represent a clock's influence on today's web-centric society. And as web presence becomes an increasingly important factor in decision making, we're sure that these numbers will increase in relevance as well.

Group 3

(via Dave Miller) Our overarching concept for organization was historical significance: was the clock something that made possible a revolutionary change or was it an exemplar of a major shift in civilization.

Our first choice was the marine chronometer, the Harrison H4. The chronometer made it possible to accurately calculate longitude and therefore paved the way for Britain to solidify its position as preeminent sea power.
The last place choice was the bracket clock, as it was to some degree superseded by the carriage clock which was the harbinger of the age of mass production.

Group 4

(via Megan Schoendorf) We were group #4 and we organized first by how closely the clock presented time according to our current (western) mode of consuming time (digital clocks, followed by analogue). Our secondary principle was accuracy.

Our "top" clock was the super ugly 80s digital clock (digital!)
Our "bottom" clock was the Su Hong clock (Did not present time in a way we are used to, and also not as accurate as the other weird clocks, such as the Long Now clock).

Some interesting recommendations tumbled forth after our group presentations. One of the most insightful was that the size of the group -- not just the characteristics of its members -- has a significant impact on the organizing principles. One student pointed to the fact that at a large group size (which could be anywhere north of 3, depending on the personalities of the group), the organization tends to become more democratic and has a risk of becoming too watered down. One takeaway, therefore, is to host a combination of group sizes when doing a project like this.

If you want to try the clock sorting exercise on your own, you can download a PDF of the clocks to print out here.