In 1922, Ray Cummings famously noted that “time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” 90-odd years later, it would appear that we have arrived at a confluence of opportunities to question Mr. Cummings observation – but pondering the nature and valuation of time is hardly something new.
For centuries, philosophers and scientists alike have argued about the nature – versus nurture – of time. For those in the Newtonian camp, time is a fundamental structure of the universe… but many thinkers since ye olde days of pomaceous violence have attempted to explain time as an intellectual or cultural structure.
Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, examining the tools that we have devised over the years to “tell time” is a fascinating activity. These tools have helped us shape our scientific understanding of the world in which we have evolved; while also telling us a thing or two about why we, highly creative and social animals, value such understanding in the first place.
Clocks are the most obvious and ubiquitous of our time-telling tools, and they come in an appropriate diversity of forms. Solar clocks such as sundials, perhaps our earliest information technologies, have been around for millennia. Mechanical clocks have been en vogue (though not necessarily freeing our minds) since escapement mechanisms were devised in 11th century China. The first atomic clocks (built upon notions of Lord Kelvin’s from the 1870′s) made their appearance on the scene in the 1949, and have steadily advanced in accuracy and complexity ever since. In recent years, ubiquitous desktop, toolbar, and dashboard clocks (not to mention per-minute cellphone plans) have contributed to a culture motivated by minutiae.
But in spite of the contemporary clock’s impressive market penetration, brave chronologists all over the world are innovating new tools that diverge significantly from our current kit. Indeed, some of these new tools for measuring and contextualizing time have been designed specifically to supplant our current reasons for keeping an eye on the clock.
I’ve been a member of the San Francisco-based Long Now Foundation for several years. Established in 01996, The organization’s goal is to develop projects and programs (and amazing seminar series) that buffer cultural tendencies towards perpetual growth and acceleration, and that help people deepen their relationship with the so-called “big here” and “long now.” A peek at the Foundation’s list of board members should get you excited – Stewart Brand, Brian Eno, Kevin Kelly, and Peter Schwartz are all co-founders – but things get really interesting when you look into their projects.
At present, the Long Now Foundation is several years into work on a mammoth project called The Clock of The Long Now. Built on an isolated and geologically stable bit of Jeff Bezos’ land in Texas, the Clock is a monument to resilience in the language of the very large, and very slow. Designed by Danny Hillis to solve a number of design challenges through forward-thinking innovation as well as archaeological learnings, the Clock is intended to tell reliable time for more than 10,000 years. If you go that far back in time, you find the origins of what make us modern: urban living, agriculture, and yes, time-telling tools. By prompting eventual visitors to the Clock to position their lives against the scale of civilization, not political terms or quarterly profits, the Long Now Foundation hopes to bring about social change by offering powerful experiences around ideas of resilience, responsibility, and awe. By recommending the addition of another decimal place to our presentation of calendar years, the Foundation even offers a convenient (and slightly less awe-inspiring) at-home experience.
The Clock of the Long Now may be the most conceptually audacious timepiece under construction at the moment, but it isn’t the largest. The clock atop the Abraj Al Bait Towers in Saudi Arabia will, when finished, take that title. Each of its four faces will have a diameter of over 151 feet, and as a result of its position atop the world’s second-tallest structure, people more than 25 kilometres away will apparently be able to use it to tell the time. Adam Barrows wrote an amazing article in the Boston Globe two weeks ago about this Mecca Clock, and some of the controversies it brings to the discussion on time. The clock deviates from established Universal Coordinated Time systems by 21 minutes, making powerful statements about humankind’s mastery of natural systems, and Saudi supremacy. As a number of fascinated chronologists have pointed out, you’re unlikely to get a look at this piece of work unless you happen to be a Muslim.
While architectural wonders across the globe seem to be the preferred approach to seeding discourse on our temporal situation, amazing leaps of understanding are taking place around the time-telling tools we (and countless other species) are born with. The equipment we use to experience the specious present is turning out to be more complex, and appropriately distributed, than previously imagined. Recent research seems to indicate that our perception of time is the result of complex systemic interaction between cerebral cortices, suprachiasmatic nuclei, and other neural networks. The deeper we look into our own timekeeping toolkits, the more it seems that Martin Heidegger was correct when insisting that “we are time.”
Time use research, mental chronometry, and time discipline are all emerging research fields dedicated specifically to understanding the human perception and valuation of time; and they all have significant implications for the design of our media.
Some of the most interesting questions for me are to do with how the tools we use to understand time, conceptual and physical, wind up shaping our media. If we were to categorize the menagerie of media spawned over the last 50 years into “Long” and “Short” forms, what might we learn? How many of those media present themselves, at least on the surface, as “long?” While many new media (and media tools) have encouraged shorter and shorter experiences in terms of narrative or direct interaction, they have also fostered enormous total durations when the entire userbase is considered. Television commercials have often been hailed as the end of the road for storytelling, but in terms of frequency and sheer number they are some of the hardiest media out there. By limiting users to 140-character breakthroughs (and memoranda of disinterest), Twitter has decreased the time required to engage in meaningful online interaction; but in terms of total content bandwidth and time spent, the service topples practically everything humanity has seen before.
Steve Jobs insisted during the development of the Macintosh that shaving seconds off of the boot-up sequence was saving lives – considering the millions of users that would be inconvenienced by wait time during the product’s lifecycle. Perhaps this aggregated and extrapolated way of thinking about time in design will be of greater and greater value in a world of bite-sized but massively populated media… I’d like to name the new framework sociochronometry.
The timeline interfaces utilized in software of all sorts represent another way of thinking about tools for time. Conceptually, the software industry has oscillated for years between timeline and system-driven metaphors for designing interactions and experiences. It would appear that both approaches are fit enough to co-exist in competition, with new species emerging all the time. While these mutations and experiments flourish in some contexts; there are occasional brilliant failures, as well (see Apple’s application of the liquid bins-and-clips iMovie interface to its reboot of the Final Cut Pro suite, and the subsequent media frenzy these past few weeks).
In a world where the all-balancing time that Ray Cummings knew seems to have fallen behind, and where everything indeed seems to be happening all at once, it’s hard to imagine physical, conceptual, or procedural tools more useful to us than those that prompt a reconsideration of our various relationships with the hours (and aeons, and yoctoseconds) of the day.
Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.