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“Time’s Interfaces”

As part of the DESIS Studio Talks event on “Designing Time,” I discussed Time’s Interfaces. Here are my slides and text:


In looking back at the email correspondence involved in organizing this event, I noted that Susan invited me to participate on December 20 at 5:08am, and that I, with uncanny prescience, replied to her invitation before she even extended it – on December 19 at 2:17pm. I offer this anecdote not to celebrate my prophetic prowess, but to acknowledge that the synchronization that resulted in all of us being together in this same room right now, actually emerged from an entanglement of space-time. When Susan wrote, I was in Australia – 10,000 miles away and 16 hours ahead of where we are here and now. [2] Our email time-warp was simply a product of clashing temporal regimes: Coordinated Universal Time, which accounts for time zones; Network Time Protocol, which accounts for the time stamp on my email; and my own computer’s internal time, which is maintained by its Real Time Clock chip. I’m sure we could factor in a host of other temporalities, too. Given the fact that Susan wrote at an ungodly hour on a Tuesday morning, we might consider circadian rhythms and culturally-conditioned values of productivity, and social conventions regarding business hours.

[3] Speaking of productivity: In those two and a half months – or 78 days, 1,880 hours, 112,000 minutes, give or take – that have elapsed between December and now, I’ve spent many a moment fretting over all those texts on time I simply haven’t made time to read. Bernard Stiegler, George Kubler: I just never got around to them. There’s also an exciting anthology, Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, which I excitedly pre-ordered months in advance of its publication date last year, but which has sat on my “to read” shelf for months since it arrived on my doorstep – via Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping, no less.

After a few too many such gratuitously expedited shipments of books that wait for my attention, I’ve come to this conclusion: Given that time it is, after all, a fundamental dimension of the universe and has been a central philosophical and practical preoccupation of humanity since, well, forever, there’s no way I could, in two and a half months, make a dent in the libraries of philosophy that have been written about time. I’ve spent too much time filling my time with other time-consuming obligations and time-warping travel, leaving me too little time to read about time. I’ll simply have to settle for feeling like a bit of an impostor on this “philosophy talk” panel.

[4] And while I haven’t read Stiegler, I do know, thanks to Daniel Ross’s time-saving gloss of his work, that Stiegler critiques Heidegger for failing to acknowledge that our access to the past and future is mediated through technics; that we access time through objects or artifacts. [5] I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking and teaching about objects and artifacts – specifically, archives, libraries, databases, and maps, as well as various epistemological objects, like measurement tools and organizational equipment. All of which embody lessons about intellectual and cultural history; all of which, in their shaping and occupation of space, also scaffold our relationship to time.

[6] Many, many people have written about the history of time-keeping devices: sundials, astrolabes, graduated candles, hourglasses, clocks, watches, calendars, and so forth.[1] [7] In their Cartographies of Time, which plays a central role in my mapping class, Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton show how historical maps and timelines, diagrams that preface today’s data visualizations, constitute an intellectual history of time. [8] And Jimena Canales examines various “timing media” – including telegraphy, photography, cinematography, and precision instruments – and how they “play an essential role in the formation of subjectivity, objectivity, and their historicity.” She proposes that technologies – “some as simple as pushbuttons and triggers, doors, and ordered lists, and others as complex as a particle accelerator or large-scale telescope” – create “temporal asymmetries (between the past, present, and future).”[2]

[9] In my remaining time, I’m not going to talk about philosophy. Instead, I’d like to discuss how designed objects, spaces, and processes do quotidian philosophical work by highlighting, or attempting to reconcile, those temporal asymmetries – or by serving as interfaces to processes and forces operating at scales we can’t empirically perceive.

[10] Let’s start with the ways agents and objects mediate our circadian rhythms. For eons, our “internal clocks” (and those of other fauna and flora) have responded to solar and thermal cues in regulating our metabolic processes. When humans began settling in agricultural communities, we could rely on the rooster’s own internal clock to warn us of the sun’s impending rise. [11] Legend has it that the Greeks devised sonically-rigged water clocks – an early marker in the history of what we might call sonic time-design. [12] This is a history encompassing everything from church bells and minarets to the factory whistle and alarm clock. Bells carved sacred time from the profane, called citizens to take caution or take up arms, and created a sonic-temporal signature for the towns and villages in which they resounded.[3] [13] The latter two, the whistle and alarm, have, for many theorists, marked the compartmentalization and commodification of time and emblematized the asymmetry between our circadian rhythms and capitalism’s 24/7 churn of production and consumption.[4]

[14] And now we have the smart phone, a portable alarm clock and a labor apparatus in one, which transforms any location into both a workplace and a nap pod. The phone tethers us to work, yet its reliable ring allows us to sneak in a ten-minute siesta, offering (as Jonathan Crary might say) a means of temporary resistance against the profit-making machine.[5] Our phones seem to be contrived for circadian contradiction. [15] Their tiny screens, which far too many of us use in bed, emit blue light that keeps us from dozing off, shortens our REM stage sleep, and suppresses the secretion of melatonin. But no worries! [16] We can download a flock of apps – some of which play binaural beats or pink noise to “soothe the brain,” others of which track our tossing and turning and surveil our snores, and thereby help us monitor our sleep quality and “gently” wake us at the optimal time. That’s assuming we don’t abuse the snooze feature, which is a bit too conveniently user-friendly on the iPhone. [17] Unlike a traditional alarm clock, which tends to stay on the night stand, the iPhone can be gently cradled in the slumbering hand, its fingers poised for repeated pokes at the snooze button. Or maybe I’m the only one who abuses this design feature?

[18] The phone serves as an interface between sleeping and waking, both as we get into bed and rise out of it. But it’s also more than that: its material properties and symbolic content have physiological and psychological effects that qualitatively and quantitatively alter the relationship between our horizontal and vertical hours. The phone-as-temporal-interface, much like that time-warp email I described earlier, embodies a clashing of temporal regimes: circadian rhythms versus a variety of capitalist times – our labor hours, manufacturers’ cycles of planned obsolescence, and all the technical micro-temporalities ticking away inside our devices.

Once we’re out of bed, though, many of us are soon out the door and off to contend with more temporal interfaces in the train station. [19] Here in New York, with such uneven service throughout our subway system, we experience temporal asymmetries between the different train lines. [20] Certain lines and stations feature countdown clocks and interactive kiosks that not only provide estimated times of arrival (granted, with a pretty wide margin of error), but also display service work and delays throughout the system, which help to contextualize that 4-minute wait for the next Q train. [21] In other stations, we’re left perched on the platform edge, peering down the tunnel, waiting for a glimpse of oncoming headlights – a old-school analog signaling system. [22] The reason for the disparity: the lettered and numbered lines were constructed independently, with different signaling and interlocking systems, each necessitating different methods for divining the location of trains within the network of tracks. [23] Up until recently, keeping track of all the system’s moving parts was akin to quantum mechanics; an analog mechanical infrastructure, with all kinds of blind spots and dead zones, simply didn’t allow for an empirical reading of time. [24] After experimenting with a number of incredibly expensive tracking systems in recent years, the MTA has installed computers and radios on-board trains, radio transmitters and transponders inside tunnels, and experimental “beacon” clocks in some stations to allow for more reliable intra-network communication and more accurate time-keeping.[6]

[25] Still, this digital infrastructure embedded within a machine-age framework creates plenty of opportunity for asymmetry – particularly when we weave in other temporalities: the cultural schedules of holidays and weekends, the unpredictable bio-social and bio-political schedules of “sick passengers” and “police investigations,” and the techno-cultural and political-economic schedules of repair, which prove particularly disruptive thanks to our elected officials’ general disinterest in maintenance. There’s much more glory in building a fancy new transit hub than there is in fixing old track. And in this, too, the condition of the transit system functions effectively as a large-scale “interface” to our cultural and political-economic values: specifically, the lack of interest and time we invest in upkeep.

[26] We get a different read in the train stations of Switzerland, where Hans Hilfiker’s iconic 1944 Swiss railway clock, with its bright red signaling-disc-shaped second hand (now endangered), emblematizes the Swiss watchmaking tradition and a cultural allegiance to punctuality. The clocks are all wired into a central master clock and synchronized at the top of each minute. [27] Apple pretty much knocked off, then eventually licensed, Hilfiker’s design for its iOS 6 iPhone and iPad clocks. (Just a quick side-note: another iconic temporal interface of the railways has proven to be not so enduring. [28] Over the past decade or so, the classic mechanical split-flap board has departed from many train stations and airports, where it’s been replaced by much less enchanting LED or LCD displays. The flip boards’ small, moving, analog parts sounded out and performed time’s sifting and fluttering passage; theirs was a choreography that, to me, mirrored the slightly frantic ballet of harried commuters. Rest in peace, Solari.)

Now, back on track: [29] Transit systems are typically quite proud of their real-time data and egocentrically oriented interfaces and apps, which enable travelers to worry only about origin and destination, and very little in-between, outside, before, or after. [30] Yet many systems still print timetables – an undervalued genre of commercial literature that required inventive graphic design in order to convey vast amounts of information about every line and stop within a broad railway system, from morning to night, seven days a week. [31] The timetable functioned as an interface to a whole metropolitan area or region – sometimes even a whole nation – across an entire week.

[32] What began in England as guidebook with station information detailed in full sentences, then transformed into an alphabetical listing of locations and all the destinations accessible from each. By the 1830s, while commercial publishers were creating bills, ledgers, and other blank forms for various businesses, [33] the railroads decided to adopt the tabular form, which allowed for the cross-referencing of all stations and stops. As their rail systems became more complex, with more stations and more variations in service at different times of day and on different days of the week, the designers of those time-tables had to squeeze more and more information onto a page of limited size. [34] They resorted to typographic variation: different typefaces to distinguish between morning and afternoon, arrows to represent directions of travel, rules to separate Sunday from weekday schedules, bold and uppercase fonts to highlight significant stations or other important information.

The mass of information, with times specified down to the minute, portrayed Britain’s railway system as a vast, efficient machine, historian Mike Esbester writes. “Yet until the 1860s,” he says, “there was no agreed upon meaning of ‘exact time.’ [35] Until a uniform time zone was legally imposed in 1880, time in Britain varied according to location. This resulted in debate as to which time should be used in the timetable.”[7] So, schedules had to specify which time they were using: “London” time or local time. By the 1860s, London time had become the standard throughout the system, and fewer than 20 years later, Britain joined the whole world in its [36] adherence to standard time zones. Thus, Esbester claims, [37] the timetable helped to disseminate knowledge about standardized time – and provided a view of the railway as a vast, ordered, dependable system; and of Britain as a unified, linked nation worth exploring. Esbester joins many other theorists in acknowledging the role of the railway (and, with it, the telegraph) in regularizing and instrumentalizing time – and in obligating passengers to routinize their own behaviors, and thereby comply with the demands of a capitalist economy.[8] The timetable, with its disciplined layout, reinforced a disciplining of human bodies.

[38] If we had more time, we could explore other designed objects that served to regularize, document, and “optimize” people’s everyday lives. [39] Molly A. McCarthy has looked at the rise of the daily planner, which she traces back to writers, like George Washington, who annotated printed almanacs; through the rise of blank books like scrapbooks and ledgers and diaries; and eventually to modular systems like the Day Runner and Day-Timer.[9] [40] She ends with an acknowledgment of the Palm Pilot and other self-organization tools in the digital realm, which is where Melissa Gregg’s research picks up: with productivity apps and time-management assistants.[10][41] And we’ve recently witnessed the rise of bulletjournaling, a defiantly analog, therapeutic form of self-management that asks the list-maker to continually reassess her goals across temporal scales, from today to an abstract “future.”[11]

Speaking of temporal scales and apps…: [42] If only we had more time, we could also ponder atomic clocks and Network Time Protocol, which seem to promise some universal temporal truth, but are actually still products of negotiation; here, “collective consensus… passes for accuracy.”[12] [43] We could also talk about the challenges of building temporal ambiguity and relativity into databases, which lie behind so many of our interactive timelines and time-metered software, and which tend to prefer definitive measurements.[13] We could examine designs intended to interface with the longue durée, with deep time. [44] We could also look at the cultural resonance of time capsules, consider the visual rhetoric of climate change animations, and analyze various artists’ and designers’ attempts to create clocks of the Anthropocene.

[45] But, sadly, that’s more time than we have time for now. Maybe some other time. [X]

[1] Barbara Adam, Timewatch: The Social Analysis of Time (Polity Press, 1995); Harry C. Brearley, Time Telling Through the Ages (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1919); Denis Feeny, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift, Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales, 1300-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Belknap Press, 1983); Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Alexis McCrossen, Making Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace: 1934 [1963]); Michael O’Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (Viking, 1980); Alexander Philip, The Calendar; Its History, Structure and Improvement (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1921); E.G. Richards, Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Mark M. Smith, Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery and Freedom in the American South (University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

[2] Jimena Canales, “Clock/Lived” in Joel Burges and Amy L. Elias, eds., Time: A Vocabulary of the Present (New York: New York University Press, 2016): 126.

[3] Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th Century French Countryside (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[4] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013); E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 56-97.

[5] See Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).

[6] Aarian Marshall, “Why It’s Taking Fooorever to Get Countdown Clocks in NYC’s Subway,” Wired (August 26, 2016): https://www.wired.com/2016/08/taking-fooorever-get-countdown-clocks-nycs-subway/; Amanda Mikelberg, “Countdown Clocks on Lettered Subway Lines Should Be Expanded as ‘Quickly as Possible,’ Report Says,” Metro (December 20, 2016): http://www.metro.us/new-york/report-analyzes-countdown-clocks-on-lettered-subway-lines/zsJplt—6JD72LkKPIAn2/; James Somers, “Why New York Subway Lines are Missing Countdown Clocks,” The Atlantic (November 13, 2015): http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/11/why-dont-we-know-where-all-the-trains-are/415152/.

[7] Mike Esbester, “Designing Time: The Design and Use of Ninetieth-Century Transport Tables,” Journal of Design History 22:2 (June 2009): 97.

[8] James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1989); Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983); Aaron W. Marrs, “Railroads and Time Consciousness in the Antebellum South,” Enterprise & Society 9:3 (September 2008): 433-56; O’Malley; Ritika Prasad, Track of Change: Railways and Everyday Life in Colonial India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

[9] Molly A. McCarthy, The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[10] Melissa Gregg, Counterproductive (forthcoming from Duke University Press); “The Productivity Obsession,” The Atlantic (November 13, 2015): http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/11/be-more-productive/415821/.

[11] Bullet Journal: http://bulletjournal.com/. See also Taeyoon Choi, E Roon Kang, et al.’s In Search of Personalized Time project: http://i-s-o-p-t.com/.

[12] Dexter Sinister, “A Note on The Time,” Art Journal 70:2 (Summer 2011); Sam Kean, “Why Time Flies,” Wall Street Journal (January 20, 2017): http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-time-flies-1484948869.

[13] Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, “Temporal Modeling” in Drucker, Ed., SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); reprinted in Chicago Scholarship Online, 2013.