Before delving into the topics that make up the context for this master thesis project, I’d like to explain my theme Experiments on the entanglements of technology, time and the present moment. First and foremost it was inspired by my increasing interest in how modern technology affects us personally and sociologically. This interest was elicited by the courses I took at the University of the Arts Bremen: the speculative design course What if? with Dennis P. Paul, the sound studies course Sound, Temporalties (and Place) with Petra Klusmeyer, the media theory course Embodied Information from a Media-Aesthetic Perspective with Andrea Sick, and the block course Inside the Blackbox with Ralf Baecker. The theoretical, artistic and philosophical influences led me to venture into the field of the humanities but also to scratch at the surface of scientific insights. Especially Petra Klusmeyer’s course raised my interest in the nature of time from a philosophical and scientific perspective. Lastly, since I went back to university with a background of working as a professional freelance designer and developer for several years, I had my personal endeavours in managing time. Therefore, I’m no stranger to the feeling of lacking time for the things that actually interest me. Going back to university was my way of creating the room to question my ingrained conceptions and ultimately to shift my personal and professional direction. Thus, the topics of technology and time also close a personal loop of mine.
Although my topic is inspired by theoretical thoughts and ideas, I set myself the goal to produce experiments. By that I mean the practical exploration and application within a theoretical context. The goal of these experiments was not so much a tangible visualization of theoretical ideas, but rather to create an experience inspired by these ideas. The choice for the very broad topics technology and time was also a conscious decision. The constantly evolving technological landscape creates new applications in multiple forms. Focusing simply on computers or smartphones would have being an artificial limitation. In a similiar fashion this argument is also true for time itself. Limiting my observations to specific types of time, for example computer time, scientific time, metaphysical time or the personal experience of time, would have predisposed a certain kind of outcome. I wanted to leave as much room as possible for exploration.
The only particular notion within the theme is the present moment. When I started my project I simply felt that the present moment is crucial in understanding and approaching current and new conceptions of time in general. What was an inkling at first, turned out to be the pivotal point for the development of my work in the end.
While converging my initial instinct into a concrete topic, I identified several themes which I found relevant in the context of my theme. Even if not all aspects mentioned below found their way into the final concept of my work, they were part of the contextual framework. In the following paragraphs I’d like to introduce these crucial topics.
The way we experience time can be distinguished by two common sense types of time: external or public time and internal or private time. External time is best described as the time of the clock. Its steady flow structures our daily life and is the accepted organizational paradigm. On the contrary internal time describes our personal experience of time. Our personal experience of time is governed by our psyche and therefore is in flux – at times it seems faster and seemingly slower at other times. The contradiction between the linearity of external time and the non-linear flow of internal time dictates our general experience of time.
This cursory overview of our experience of time of course does not do justice to its inherent complexities. As Maria Popova points out in her article The Science of Internal Time, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired reviewing German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg’s book Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired, we all have our personal chronotype. Our chronotype is characterized by how much sleep an individual needs. But this behavior is not fixed. Our chronotype changes periodically over our lifetime. Roenneberg’s research underlines the fact that the requirements by social time (external time) conflict with our biological time (internal time) which creates, what he calls, social jetlag. He found evidence that ingrained conceptions about time, which were conceived in foregone times and for example are depicted in proverbs like ‘The early bird catches the worm’, are not justified anymore in modern societies. Due to modern communication technology the day-night rhythm is not necessarily tied to times of daylight. This does not negate the negative biological effects of living out of sync with the rhythm of the day. But these outdated conceptions can have a negative impact on our health, if we act against our bodily function due to assumed social requirements. Also other factors affect our chronotype like for example daylight savings time (DST), which is detrimental for some chronotypes.
Whereas Roenneberg concerns himself with the biological effects of the requirements of social time, author and professor of sociology Helga Nowotny looks at the effects of changing temporalities in western society. In her 1993 book Eigenzeit - the english translation from 1996 is titled Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience – she engages herself with the perception of time and how it has changed. She argues that in the phase of the industrialization time was valued against money due to the capitalistic ideal. This equation is suitably depicted by Benjamin Franklin’s idiom ‘Time Is Money’. Which makes sense, because then time was a scarce commodity within the industrial production cycle. In terms of innovation she posits that progress was in sync with human understanding. In her own words the belief in progress was linear and therefore the boundaries between present and future intact. This implies that the present and the future were distinct entities, where the former clearly differs from but also indicates towards the latter.
I gradually became convinced of the inexorable disappearance of the category of the future and its replacement by something I call the extended present. And always and everywhere I encountered those technologies which are changing the human perception of time most immediately and most visibly - the modem technologies of communication.
Helga Nowotny (p.8)
According to Nowotny, the distinctiveness of our perception of time changed with the introduction of modern communication technologies. She perceives that time is sped up by becoming accelerated innovation itself. To her the time-boundary between present and future has become permeable and the present has been detached from the temporal linearity. Nowotny states, “a present geared to accelerated innovation is beginning to devour the future.” (p.11) This state she calls extended present. It is characterized by approximate simultaneities installed by technological infrarstructure. Networking technologies bridge the gap between temporal and spatial distances. But as much as this technology connects us, it also separates us in economic terms. Nowotny observes that the technological and economic advantage of industrialized nations increases the separation to developing nations. At the same time our interaction is almost immediate. Another aspect of our accelerated temporality is dwindling responsibility. The reason, she identifies, are short-term interactions which negate the value of time invested in interpersonal exchange. Therefore, these interactions do not create the foundation for durable relationships and trust.
Only against the background of speed can slowness be determined and learnt. Only against the background of temporal limitation can the latter be surpassed.
Helga Nowotny (p.14f)
During the financial crisis, which started in 2007 and is recognized as the worst financial crisis since the great depression of the 1930s, one name was frequently mentioned: economist John Maynard Keynes. Among his macroeconomic concepts he advocated for a mixed economy where the private sector is predominant, but the public sector should intervene at times of recession. The concepts outlined in his 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. are commonly refered to as Keynesianism. Apart from the resurgence of his ideas at times of crisis, another prediction of Keynes is worth mentioning. According to his forecast technological progress might create a 15-hour workweek by 2030. In other words, he assumed that the gains in technological efficiency would free people from work.
The idea of “The End of Work” is nothing new, even at Keynes’ times. It is floating around for at least 200 years, as economist and director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at MIT Andrew McAfee points out in his interview on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source Radio show. According to McAfee we are living at times of the second industrial revolution. Whereas in the first revolution we overcame the limitations of our muscles, in the second revolution we will be overcoming the limitations of our minds. The ultimate goal remains the utilization of machines to take over the menial tasks of work in order to enable humans to immerse themselves in their passions. In his book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. he calls this state Digital Athens. REWRITE —> By this he’s referring to the time of high culture in greece which was characterized by humanist ideals. A reference to which I will return to later on.
Although the ideal of the end of work sounds tempting, McAfee goes on to explain why in his opinion we should critically observe the transition period. The classic economist view of the world is that technology creates more jobs and companies than it destroys. But through his research McAfee became sceptical of this assumption. Because he observed how technology is the driving factor of hollowing out the middle class by mostly creating new jobs at the upper and lower steps of the skill ladder.
We all remember the promises. The slogans. They were all about freedom, liberation. Supposedly we were in handcuffs and wanted out of them. The key that dangled in front of us was a microchip.
Generally technology which enables higher efficency does so in order to save time – doing the same amount of work in less time. The notion of ‘saving time’ also alludes to notion of a sustainable work-life balance. The goal is to minimize the amount of ‘work time’ in order to gain ‘life time’. In this scenario work and life are two competing forces, work has a negative connotation, whereas life has positive connotations. From this perspective being effective at work is eligible, if not necessary in order to have ‘time to live’. Generally, technology that acts as a enhancement of or replacement for human labor is ingrained with the drive for efficiency. It is the promise to tip the scale towards the life part of the equation. Computers especially try to fulfill the promise of less, more efficient work. Once computers where connected by a world-wide network and services became available detached from space and time, the dream seemed attainable even more so.
Unquestionably, technology is evolving at a rapid pace compared to previous decades. How did we gain comparatively such an advantage in efficiency due to computers, but somehow lack the projected gains in time? If any theme is prevailing over the last few years, if not decades, it is the perceived lack of time, which we are trying to solve with ever more technological innovations. Are we stuck in cycle of efficiency which itself reaps the gains in time? Is the end of work an utopia? And are the ideals of capitalism the obstructions which prevent us from gaining a new vision of time and the future?
Following the arguments about efficiency, one might think that acceleration alludes to the speed of technology and the speed at which it is evolving over the past decades. There is no doubt that the pace of change is part of this phenomenon. But is technological progress the only driving factor? In his famous paper from 1965 Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, proposed a model which predicted a doubling of transistor density in computer chips each for the next decade. The density of transistors are an indicator for computational processing speed. And although he adjusted his proposal in 1975 to two years for the doubling rate, his predictions proved to be very acurate. Nowadays we refer to this rate of technological progress as Moore’s law, since it proved as a valid model not just for the speed of computer processors. Today the impact of Moore’s law is accepted as the driving force of change in technology and society.
Even if in retrospect Moore’s predictions proved to be acurate, when released it must have seem unlikely to continue for decades. To the extend that today we are faced with supercomputers and artificial intelligence algoritms that operate beyond any human understanding. A good indicator for this claim is the ‘Flash Crash’ which happened in 2010. It started on May 6th at 2:32 p.m. and lasted for approximately 36 minutes. Due to High-frequency trading stock indices plummeted and rebounded rapidly at an erratic rate and stock values became unhinged from their underlying value. A few years later these kinds of crashes were accepted as not just singular incidents, but could also be predicted. In order to understand the frenzy of algorithmic trading the design studio Stamen has visualized a day’s worth of trading data from the NASDAQ stock exchange in their project A Day of Financial Transactions. Another interesting visual project in this context is the collaboration between Bernhard Hopfengärtner and Gunnar Green for 75000 Futures.
Although the story, that technology is causing the acceleration, seems plausible, Judy Wacjman is proposing a different narrative. In her book Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism she describes acceleration as a cult, that is defined by social factors and not just by technology alone. She argues that “the symbolic significance and allure of speed that characterize our present condition has a long lineage”. She even traces this lineage back to Georg Simmel’s essay The Metropolis and Mental Life from 1903. She agrees with Simmel in that immediacy, simultaneity, and presentism have been there since the industrialization. So, what makes the difference today?
Following Wacjman the reason is the intensification of work enabled by technology. The idea of the intensification of work is derived from Karl Marx, who argued that there are only two ways to extract more work from laborers: work longer hours or increase the productivity in the same period of time. According to Wajcman’s empirical research, work hours have remained constant since the 1960s. But her research also shows that a feeling of contant pressure and lack of time has grown. Why did this gap emerge? Wajcman’s answer is two-fold. On the one hand there are people who work more by choice and others who work less unintendedly. The distribution of work is very unequal across our societies. This complements McAfee’s observation of the kind of jobs modern technology creates. Wajcman also argues that the gap is caused by the strain of a new performance regime. Our work is measured in ways it was never before.
We now attribute value to “busyness” and multitasking; we feel busy because we want to squeeze as much as possible into as little time as possible. In order to change these feelings we first need to redefine our cultural values.
In essence technology is not innately responsible for our lack of time. It is rather our cultural inclinination to perform and feel busy. And the compression of time due to performance induced by technology fuels the acceleration narrative. Nevertheless, Wajcman says about herself that she does not fall prey to cultural pessimism or technological determinism which she is critizing Paul Virilio and Manuel Castels for. She’s optimistic that after using new technologies excessively and obsessively in the beginning over time we integrate the new tools into our lives ina sensible way.
Nowadays the ease of software development allows for rapid implementations of new ideas and concepts. A highly acclaimed circumstance which nevertheless has its pitfalls. Once an idea is implemented and reaches a certain threshold of distribution, it becomes hard – if not impossible – to change. Computer philosophy writer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier names this phenomenon lock-in in his 2010 manifesto You Are Not a Gadget. He argues that “the process of lock-in is like a wave gradually washing over the rulebook of life, culling the ambiguities of flexible thoughts as more and more thought structures are solidified into effectively permanent reality”. (p.9)
His predominant example he refers to is the MIDI standard for notes in digital music and how it affects the ideation of new software and therefore also compositions. MIDI was developed by Dave Smith in the early 1980s. He conceived the standard when being faced with the problem of connecting a keyboard to a synthesizer. Dispite the fact that MIDI is a quite literal translation of the keys being pressed and released, MIDI became a standard format for musical notes in software. Whereas MIDI works well to encode the behavior of a keyboard, it fails to do so with other instruments, for example a saxophone. Nevertheless, since MIDI became an unquestioned standard for notes, it is also used to represent a saxophone in music software.
It takes only a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed. Therefore, crucial arguments about the human relationship with technology should take place between developers and users before such direct manipulations are designed.
Jaron Lanier (p.5f)
As Lanier points out, he is worried that the same mistake is repeated online in terms of what person is. According to Lanier working with information technology automatically involves being engaged in social engeneering.
A concern in a similiar vein is contributed by Eli Pariser in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. Pariser is credited with coining the term filter bubble in order to describe the effects algorithms have on our consumption of online media. Pariser argues that algorithms boil down the variety of possible information to affirm our preconceptions. Pariser critizises the intransparent nature by which these algorithms alter our perceived reality online – for example, how Google generates search results or how Facebook generates its news stream.
As suggested before, technology affects how we perceive time. Therefore it is crucial to question ideas and philosophies that are encoded into technology. If we seek to change our perception of time, we have to critically review which ideas and concepts are encoded in the technology we use.
The process of Habituation describes how humans adapt to repeated stimuli. In other words, it describes how humans develop habits and get used to characteristics of objects and their environment. While this process is natural and necessary, product designers can introduce objects which change our previously established relationship to its function. In his presentation at TED Tony Fadell – former Apple Vice President of the iPod devision and founder of Nest Labs – talks about the importance for designers to carefully craft their products in regard to habituation. If not done well, the use of products will have a negative impact on how we use them. On the contrary, if done well, products allow us to handle rather complex situations with ease.
Therefore, habituation is linked to human comfort and humans often take the path of least resistance. This renders the process of habituation problematic and can verge on human conditioning – as already hinted at by Jaron Lanier. While this process is less problematic in classic, non-networked, non-updateable products, it becomes increasingly problematic in the context of networked products, which are driven by software and algorithms.
By this I’m not suggesting that we simple subjects of manipulation by using a companies’ products. We are also appropriating technological functionalities as human paradigms ourselves. The cultural impact of technology on ourselves has already been established before. Here I’m rather talking about human appropriations to technology to which we submit willingly. Take for example multitasking. Within the computer multitasking is a concept to split up a computational task into multiple processes in order to be handled concurrently by multiple processors or processor cores in a single processor. The principle of splitting tasks into smaller chunks can also be found in efficiency techniques, for example GTD (Getting things done). But executing tasks simultaneously is different.
As pointed out by Walter Kirn in his article The Autumn of the Multitaskers scientists found evidence contrasting the assumed benefits of multitasking. First of all it requires a constant switching between brain regions – imagine reading an article (visual process) and brushing your teeth (physical coordination). This switching actually prevents the activation of higher areas of brain activity which are related to memory and learning. Kirn assesses that “we concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.” Further, there is evidence that multitasking triggers biochemical processes which release stress related hormones. Although the effect of these hormones in the short term are controversial – some even argue for them to be healthy – science univocally agrees on the long term effects of stress. Effects are fatigue, inability to focus and limited analytical abilities. “This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking”.
The point I’m trying to make here, is that through human appropriation to technology we are implementing personal habits which might not be in our favor. Within the context of ideas encoded into technology, which can lead detrimental habits through habituation, and cultural paradigms forced upon through and by technology, I perceive personal appropriations as the third tier of critical adaptations to technology.
In his TED talk about his book What Technology Wants WIRED magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly explains his view on the evolution of technology. The title seems to suggest a humanization of technology, but Kelly is rather refering to the inherent qualities of technology. He goes on to point out that according to his observations technology evolves by the same standards nature does: ubiquity, diversity, specialization, complexity and socialization. According to Kelly there’s proof for each of these trends in technology. Therefore, he considers technology as the 7th kingdom of nature.
Another important concept in Kelly’s analysis is what he refers to as the infinite game. He posits that culture is an accumulation of ideas. This implies that each idea is build upon the previous generation – as in cellular biology and genetics. In other words current technology is the plateau from which new technology is derived. But technology has also the advantage of skipping the current plateau and derive inspiration from all previous ideas. Therefore technology has an advantage over natural evolution where inappropriate adaptations to the environment simply cease to exist if they can not adapt to new circumstances.
From the standpoint that technology is modeled after natural observations and evolves by the same standards the hypothesis of the technological singularity becomes feasable. The singularity encapsulates the idea that technology will be able to reproduce and improve itself which eventually will result in a powerful superintelligence that far surpasses human intelligence. The author, scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil is a proponent of this theory. He argues that we are already working on the technology and predicts that the singularity will become reality in the forseeable future. He also perceives the human body already in transition which he captures in the term transhuman. The term encapsulates the idea that we as humans are overcoming our physical and biological limitation by means of technology.
Some of the themes I described above, at least the ones which relate to work and technology, might seem like I’m an opponent of technological progress. But although I share a general scepticism towards to overly optimistic trajectories of technology, I also believe that technology already is an integral part of our life and the many positive effects by far outweigh the negative ones. Nevertheless, I also think that a critically observation, analysis and assessment of technological and sociological progress should take place in democratic and public context.
With my project I want to specifically address our undersanding of time and propose an alternative point of view which enables the creative development of the future in every moment.
There thus arises the longing for the moment. In strategic terms, it has to be the ‘right’ moment. In playful creative terms, it is the moment which - for a short time - makes everything possible, and from which history flows. Seeking the moment and finding it ultimately means acknowledging one’s own temporality.
Helga Nowotny (p.15)
- Alexander, N. (2016, February 1). Siri, why am I so busy?: An interview with Judy Wajcman. Retrieved from http://www.publicbooks.org/interviews/siri-why-am-i-so-busy-an-interview-with-judy-wajcman at 16/10/07 14:09
- Kirn, W. (2007, November). The Autumn of the Multitaskers. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/11/the-autumn-of-the-multitaskers/306342/ at 16/10/07 14:08
- Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Lydon, C. (Host). (2014, July 31). The End of Work [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://radioopensource.org/the-end-of-work/ at 16/10/07 14:02
- Nowotny, H. (1996). Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
- Popova, M. (2012, November 5). The Science of Internal Time, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/05/11/internal-time-till-roenneber/ at 16/10/07 13:54
- TED. (2005, February). Kevin Kelly: How technology evolves [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_kelly_on_how_technology_evolves at 16/10/08 16:59
- TED. (2015, March). Tony Fadell: The first secret of design is … noticing [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/tony_fadell_the_first_secret_of_design_is_noticing at 16/10/08 16:58
- Dark Rye. (2014, April 11). Douglas Rushkoff: Present Shock [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/91720717 at 16/10/08 17:45
- Thompson, D. (2015, July/August). A World Without Work. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/world-without-work/395294/ at 16/10/07 14:21