New article: Temporal Design
I'm pleased to announce a second event in the Temporal Design series that we’ve been developing here in Edinburgh. This will be a small workshop format, but all welcome. Further information and the link to register is below.
Temporal Design: Surfacing Everyday Tactics of Time
The second in the series of Temporal Design events hosted by Design Informatics (ECA) will focus on the tactics used to negotiate time in everyday life. We are particularly interested in asking how design might support or hinder what we are calling ‘vernacular temporalities’. That is, the idiosyncratic modes of dealing with and understanding time that are locally constructed in response to specific contexts and which may not fit the more regulatory infrastructures that dominate thinking about time.
Vernacular temporalities are those that are produced through day-to-day negotiation with the people, places, objects we encounter. They involve practices that shape how we perceive and manage time. We act and react, we organise and negotiate, stretch and compact time, but we also predict, reminisce, and fantasise about other times. Although these
practices play an important role in shaping temporality, they are often enacted in an unreflective way, rarely noted or discussed. Indeed in our first workshop, many participants suggested that it had been the first time they had even articulated the daily practices they had developed to deal with temporal demands. The aim of this workshop, then, is to surface the role of these temporal practices and their effect on broader social contexts, discussing how artefacts and systems may work as triggers, projections, facilitators or obstructions to these practices.
The workshop will feature four speakers from design and design theory, whose work touches on different aspects of temporality. They will each highlight a specific artefact, and there will be the opportunities for attendees to participate in reflecting on these talks and/or selected objects throughout the event.
The workshop is free and open to all disciplines.
When: 28th September 2015, 11am - 4pm
Where: Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh, Old College, South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH8 9YL
To register for the workshop go to:
For more information contact:
Organised by Larissa Pschetz, Jane Macdonald, Chris Speed and Michelle Bastian, Design Informatics, University of Edinburgh.
Objects of Time - Kevin Birth at the Frick
On a recent holiday in New York, I was lucky enough to meet up with Kevin Birth, an anthropologist at CUNY Queens, who does fascinating research on time and clocks. The Frick Collection currently has an exhibition of clocks and watches called Precision and Splendor and Kevin was generous enough to give my partner and I, and another colleague a guided tour of the collection. It was absolutely fascinating, and so I was really pleased to see that his lecture on the exhibition is available to veiw through FORA.tv. Highly recommended.
Philosophy and clock-time...
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the 2013 IASH Winter School on Timing TransFormations as a post-doctoral participant. The team have added videos of some of the attendees talking about their work. See Rosi Braidotti, Antje Fluechter, Elaine Gan and others on the importance of time in their work. I spoke a little about why I think philosophy should pay more attention to the subtleties of clock time in social life.
Can Amazon Support Long Term Thinking?
Originally published on the Time of Encounter blog, part of an AHRC funded project exploring social aspects of time.
Fittingly, on the first day of the 14th Baktun, I want to continue with my focus on the Clock of the Long Now and the question of its ability to support a wider appreciation of deep time. For Brand, the “ambition and folly of the Clock..is to reframe human endeavour, and to do so not with a thesis but with a thing” (1999, 48). And so in this post, I want to focus, not so much on the theory of the clock, but more on the practicalities involved in actually building it, and particularly financing such a large and complex project.
While the plan is to build multiple clocks around the world, the construction of the first clock is currently underway in West Texas on the property of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos after he agreed to back the project to the tune of approximately $42 million. (You can find a great overview of the process from Dylan Tweney here). The site the Long Now Foundation had originally bought in Nevada is now being held in reserve for a second clock. Asked how he justifies spending such a large amount of money on a seemingly impractical project, Bezos told Wired’s Tweney that long-term thinking is just simply worth it, but also that ‘no other billionaire is building a clock like this, for the sole purpose of changing humanity’s relationship to time’.
In much of the commentary on Bezos and the Clock of the Long Now there seems to be agreement that this is almost a match made in heaven. Bezos is well-known throughout the tech industry for being a long-term thinker. As he notes himself in an article for IEEE Spectrum his first letter [PDF] to Amazon.com shareholders in 1997 set out his interest in pursuing “long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations”. His early investment in ebook readers is often cited as clear example of this priority of the long-term over the short. While the development of Amazon Web Services, and in particular the long-term online storage facility Glacier, could actually be seen to address some of the issues around short-term thinking in the tech world that Danny Hillis initially sought to respond to with his clock project (see my previous post). As Bezos has said in a number of contexts, one of the three basic rules of Amazon is “patience. We are looking at the long term. We know how to wait for results.”
But what if we take a wider-view of clocks and the time of Amazon? In my first post, I suggested that understanding the role of time in social life would be helped by using a broader definition of the clock. Where a clock, is not an objective tool for measuring a single smooth flow of perpetual change, but as a device for social coordination, which was encoded with social values and produced through social decisions about what is important and what is not, what we need to be synchronised with and what we can ignore. What I want to suggest is that when we look at time in this way, the relationship between the Clock of the Long Now and Amazon doesn’t appear quite so felicitous.
Fundamentally, while the Clock of the Long Now is trying to make long-term thinking automatic for those who experience it, the aim of Amazon is arguably to provide an experience of speed and immediacy. Each new innovation, from One-Click Ordering, Amazon Prime, the Kindle and even the long-term storage service provided by Glacier is guided by the desire to decrease the amount of patience asked of those who use its services. In conjunction with this we must also consider the high-pressure experiences of those working for the company itself and particularly the workers at the company’s fulfilment centres who must work at an extremely fast pace on short-term flexible contracts. If Bezos is serious about ‘changing humanity’s relationship to time’ shouldn’t he pay attention to the much wider changes his company is already facilitating? Can the Clock of the Long Now really compete with the Clock of Amazon?
How, for example, can its fulfilment centre workers think about the long-term when they have no security of contract? How can companies think about the long term, when Amazon claims that is Glacier service means that “customers no longer need to worry about how to plan and manage their archiving infrastructure”. While letting Amazon worry about the long term may sound attractive, as Brand and Hillis have claimed, many of their most interesting innovations have been produced through grappling with the concrete task of building the Clock. What Glacier does is allow the customer to lose the opportunity to learn more about the process of long-term thinking, as this can be outsourced to Amazon. More generally, Bezos’ focus on the customer’s experience centres on meeting the desire for a wide range of goods delivered fast at the cheapest price. But as Pheobe Sengers has suggested in her fascinating piece on time, technology and the pace of life, it is actually when you don’t have a great deal of choice, and can’t get things quickly that you start experiencing time in a more sustainable and relaxed way. What the Clock of Amazon allows is actually the ability to ignore the long term, to value immediacy and to act on fleeting impulses rather than make well thought out decisions.
In Amazon’s defence, Brand writes in his book on the Clock of the Long Now that the project is not interested in slowing everything down. Instead he argues that it is actually the “combination of fast and slow components [that] makes the system resilient, along with the way the differently paced parts affect each other. Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous…Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power. All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure; it is what makes them adaptable and robust” (34). He suggests that commerce is one of the ‘fast’ systems of a culture, while other areas such as infrastructure and governance are slower and help moderate its excesses. From this point of view, perhaps the Clock of Amazon might not so problematic. Crucially, however, this rests on the assumption that governance structures are strong enough to shape businesses in particular ways and according to longer-term priorities. The reality seems to be further and further from the case. The consequences of paying poverty wages, of increasing inequalities between the poor and the rich and the repercussions of Amazon’s failure to contribute to broader social structures through its widespread tax avoidance are all long-term issues that Amazon is very clearly not being required to address.
The idea of the Long Now came from Brian Eno, who after climbing over homeless people on a building’s steps in order to visit a glamorous loft owned by a celebrity, realised that for her ‘here’ stopped at her front door and ‘now’ meant this week (Brand 1999, 28). Shocked by the contrast between the poor and the rich he wrote that he wanted to be living in a ‘Big Here and a Long Now’. This is one of the fundamental ideas the Clock is based on. The risk in allying this understanding of the long-term with Bezos’ is that much of its radical nature could be lost, and the Clock of the Long Now could have very little chance of competing with the other ‘clock’ Bezos is also building.
Brand, Stewart. 1999. The Clock Of The Long Now: Time and Responsibility. New York: Basic Books
Clock of the Long now (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Piglicker)
Originally published on the Time of Encounter blog, part of an AHRC funded project exploring social aspects of time.
The Doomsday Clock and the 100 month clock both encourage a shift away from the idea that the future is something that automatically happens. Moving from a numbered time to one based on the qualities of that time, both suggest that unless we make significant changes in the present, there might not even be a future for the human race (and for most other life on this planet). In this post though, I want to look at the Clock of the Long Now, which offers quite a different perspective. Here the concern is not that we take the future for granted, but rather that we take no notice of it at all.
So rather than having a clock that frames time within a twelve hour period, or a calender that frames time within a year, the Clock of the Long Now is being built to last for 10,000 years. First proposed by scientist and inventor Danny Hillis, this clock does not mark every second, or even every minute, instead it is one that “ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium”. This long sense of time is not (like the previous two clocks discussed) intended to produce a sense of the devastating consequences of our current way of life, but instead, to start to imagine what could be accomplished over long periods of time with continued effort.
The concern with taking a longer view was partly to counteract the very short term thinking that Hillis noticed within I.T. projects. For example, when a very early computer was shut down at M.I.T. all the information had to be moved to magnetic tapes which can no longer be read. This meant that “we lost the world’s first text editor, the first vision and language programs, and the early correspondence of the founders of artificial intelligence” (Brand 1999, 84). As Steward Brand, another co-founder of the project commented, “science historians can read Galileo’s technical correspondence from the 1590s but not Marvin Minsky’s from the 1960s”.
In starting to think through the design problems involved with building a device that would last for 10,000 years, it’s interesting that Hillis’ awareness of the ability for low tech methods to last, where high tech fails, has meant that the progressive narrative of a continuously technologically advancing future had to be seriously questioned. Instead, when you have to think about the future in much more specific ways, e.g. how to make a particular physical device operate for an extended length of time, the unknowability of the future becomes much more pronounced. Instead of trusting that things will always improve, as so many ‘return to growth’ advocates do, the desire to make something last actually seems to bring out a more cautious approach (see also “Into Eternity”). Not knowing what the future held meant that the key design principles had to be based on the idea that people in the future might not have the knowledge or the materials to deal with a device built using our current technology. So the clock had to be able to be maintained using technologies available during the Bronze age, but also had to be ‘transparent’. That is, the clock mechanisms should be able to be figured out by an intelligent person only by observing the mechanism itself.
Mechanism on prototype (CC BY-NC 2.0 Madichan)
Hillis’ interest in Bronze Age technology was criticised by futurists who understood the clock as a reversion to the past, rather than showing us the future. This in itself is interesting since it shows quite clearly how inbuilt the assumption of progress is, even with those who devote their careers to thinking about time and the future. A further question they posed though is more interesting. According to Po Bronson, “in their opinion, by demonstrating the technology of the past, the clock will make us think about the past”. That is, in the future will the clock still make people think of the times ahead or would it instead make people think more “about what life was like in 2000, and wonder why in the world someone way back then would build such a thing.”
But perhaps the focus on whether the clock tells us about the past or the future is to slightly miss the point, since these criticisms still use a framework of time-as-we-know-it. That is, the conception of time being drawn on in the criticisms has not itself been called into question. The Clock of the Long Now is not necessarily telling ‘our time’ rather it is trying to connect us up with ‘deep time’, arguably a fundamentally different kind of time. Can progress and regress really mean the same thing when thought about in the context of tens or hundreds of thousands of years? More importantly does it matter if people in the year 4000 (or 04000) are thinking about us in the 2000s rather than those in 6000s? It seems that one of the key points of the clock is that the kinds of relations produced by a standard clock, where we are often only thinking about those close in time to ourselves, are transformed. The triumph will be if people divided from each other by millennia are thinking about each other at all…
Brand, Stewart. 2000. The Clock Of The Long Now: Time and Responsibility. New York: Basic Books.
Clocks in Open Space
Originally published on the Time of Encounter Blog, part of an AHRC funded project that looked at time in social life
I was at the World Open Space on Open Space event in London this weekend. For those of you who don’t know, Open Space Technology is a technique developed by Harrison Owen that allows groups to self-organise conferences. Rather than setting out a schedule in advance, participants create the schedule in the first session of the day. I’ve been interested in how this technique might offer one way of experiencing time differently from more normal conferences which often feel rushed and cut off by clock time. So at the WOSonOS meeting yesterday I proposed a session on OS and time and ended up having a really great wide-ranging conversation. I’m hoping to write up my thoughts on this in more detail, but in the mean time you can read a report on our discussions here.
Originally posted on the Time of Encounter Blog, part of an AHRC-funded project looking at time in social life.
This month the New Economics Foundation’s One Hundred Months Clock hit its halfway point. Developed by Andrew Simms and Peter Meyers, it is a new kind of clock for our time of climate change. Like the Doomsday Clock, the One Hundred Months clock provides an important contrast to the way the regular clock projects an empty or open future. Instead of a time that ticks on the same forever, this clock has a beginning and an end. Started in August 2008, it indicates the number of months that NEF suggest are still available for us to take action to avoid runaway climate change. Working on the assumption that we need to avoid raising the Earth’s average surface temperature by more than 2ºC, they argue that if we have not made significant progress within this time period, it will be too late. (See here for the technical report [PDF]). One of my favourite ways of quickly explaining to people why clocks are not objective or neutral is to say that while I can look at the clock and tell if I’m late for work, I can’t look at the clock and tell if I’m too late to respond to climate change. I wonder if Andrew Simms had some of the same thoughts. In the first post on the clock, written for the Guardian, he describes tired office workers anxiously watching their wall clock on that Friday in August, looking forward to going home. For him there seemed to be a disconnect between the vast global changes taking place and the world this kind of clock focuses us on – work, holidays, football transfer schedules. In creating the One Hundred Months Clock he writes that “there is now a different clock to watch than the one on the wall”. Rather than suggesting that every future moment will provide more opportunities to act, this new clock instead “tells us that everything that we do from now matters”. What I really like about this clock then is the way it explicitly challenges the assumption that everyday clocks are all-encompassing. Instead it points out that those clocks we stare at while at work actually hide some of the most important changes that are happening in the world at the moment. Watching the countdown on the website, instead of the one on the wall, perhaps we could begin to coordinate ourselves in different ways around new understandings of what is significant.
Visually the clock recalls a bedside alarm clock, with a dash of a countdown-clock-at-a-sports-arena vibe. The red digital display shows the remaining months, days, hours and seconds until the window of opportunity for action closes. Like a traditional clock, and unlike the Doomsday Clock, it is not responsive to any actions we take in the meantime, but keeps ticking on regardless. This experience of time ticking away is reinforced by the tick, tick, tick that you can hear on the website, a ticking that also sounds like a bomb waiting to go off. As if to acknowledge the anxiety the sound can create the website provides a mute button. Interestingly this countdown often gets confused with the kind of time told by the Doomsday clock. That is a lot of people seem to assume that NEF are predicting the actual end of the world (see the comments on this article for example). But it’s not as simple as this.
Indeed another intriguing aspect of the clock is that it uses a very linear idea of time to actually tell a story about the non-linearity of climate change. In some of the first e-bulletins sent to those who signed up to the movement, there are a range of videos and links that focus on climate feedback loops and tipping points. Capitalising on new understandings of how climate change works, the clock suggested that these processes are not linear, but instead it harks back to ancient Greek ideas of kairos and chronos, where kairos refers to those specific times when action is possible. Instead of every moment being equal, the clock tells us that these hundred months are unlike any other. As one of narrators says in one of the video links: “those who came before us didn’t know anything about this problem, and those who come after will be powerless to do anything about it, but for us there’s still time, we better get a move on though” (from Leo Murray). The clock is not counting down to Doomsday then, but rather to the end of the window opportunity, the end of the kairotic moment.
One of the things I’m wondering about, though, is how the One Hundred Months Clock might change the way we understand our relatedness, with each other and with the world. Fundamentally, as I’ve argued previously, clocks are devices for coordinating ourselves with what is significant to us, and this new clock does offer a different take on what is significant from our usual clocks. But I’m not sure whether it yet provides the kinds of mechanisms of re-coordination that are also needed. The monthly e-bulletins, for example, offer suggestions for actions to take each month, asking readers to ‘let’s make this month count’. But I found that a lot of these suggestions are to sign petitions, lobby politicians or attend one-off events. The power to act seems to remain within the realms of trying to convince politicians and large companies to act responsibly. Reading through the actions also felt a little isolating, they were often about things I would do alone.
As a result, the One Hundred Months Clock ended up reminding me too much of that bedside alarm clock. The red numerals reminding me of all the times I’ve stared at my alarm, feeling out of synch with everyone else. Either not wanting to get up, or not being able to get to sleep – a kind of limbo where there are either not enough people around to do what you want, or where there are too many expecting you to do too many things you might not want to do. I’d like to venture that for many of us, this is exactly what the ‘time of climate change’ feels like. But if we are to seize the opportunity offered by the next fifty months then this problem of community – of acting with others in ways that feel significant but also achievable – is something that our clocks will also need to tell us about. To do this will require some radical experiments with what a clock is or could be (and I’ll be exploring examples of these in future posts) but, fundamentally, the awareness that, as Simms points out, we do indeed need other ones.
Update: Forgot to say, that I’ve not yet had a chance to read through the suggestions made in the 50 months to save the world feature released yesterday, but I have the feeling that the question of relationality, or community is addressed in a variety of ways in these posts.. Will write something up about it when I can.
Originally posted on the Time of Encounter Blog, part of an AHRC-funded project looking at time in social life.
If, as I suggested in my previous post, our everyday clocks obscure the politics involved in their production, there are also a wide variety of clocks that have been explicitly developed to intervene into the political. These clocks do not tell the story of a homogeneous, unending and all-encompassing time, but instead provoke us to re-examine our assumptions about time itself. The first couple of examples I want to focus on in this series intervene into the notion of an undifferentiated future and instead suggest that the end of time might actually be very close to the present.
Arguably of the most prominent example of this type of clock is the Doomsday Clock. Created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it tracks the likelihood of nuclear war. Using a traditional clock-face, the clock re-purposes the minute hand so that it no longer indicates the accumulated changes in the ceasium atom (which is the basis of atomic time) but instead indicates changes in the prevalence of atomic bombs and their likelihood of use. Giving new meaning to the concept of ‘atomic time’, the clock was developed in the early stages of the cold war in order to “frighten men [sic] into rationality” according to Eugene Rabinowitch, one of the co-founders of the Bulletin. Thus while still using the design of the standard clock, this version undoes UTC’s soothing projection of a future without end through a refocusing on the very real possibility of armageddon. In one of the few academic articles about the clock, Juha Vuori suggests that the continued use of the standard design was crucial to lending believability to clock that was more prophetic that precise. He argues that “through the symbol of the Doomsday Clock, the Scientists have been able to combine their social capital as voices of reason and objectivity with that of the soothsayer to influence society and behaviour” (Vuori, 2010 264)
Going back to the redefinition of the clock that I proposed in my first post, the Doomsday clock illustrates really nicely the notion that clocks should not be understood simply as devices for telling the time, but as devices for coordinating with what is significant. It initially sought to focus attention on the specific context in 1947. But, although originally designed to be simply a static image, in 1949 the Doomsday Clock was moved forward from seven minutes to midnight to just three minutes in response to the first Soviet tests of the atomic bomb. Later the changing political context led to the clock being moved back back to seven minutes to midnight in 1960. This adds an extra dimension to its disruption of clock time, providing the possibility of time to move forward or backward depending on the political context and human action or inaction. But further it shows the importance of continuing to track significant change when attempting to tell the time. As part of this, later changes to the clock included incorporating an analysis of the threats of climate change and biological weapons. Indeed, the clock was moved forward one minute to midnight in January 2012 in part due to inaction over climate change. (See here for an outline of the changing times of the clock).
One thing that the Doomsday Clock suggests, then, is that if you want your clock to remain significant it has to keep with the times. However, what can also be learnt is the difficulty of doing so. A common criticism has been that the clock did not move at all during the Cuban missile crisis, but stayed at seven minutes to midnight throughout. The attempt to make the clock more relevant by considering a variety of global threats could also strain the reach of its symbolism. Further, inspired by the Doomsday Clock the Atlantic decided to develop an Iran War Clock, only to remove all mention of it from its website soon after with no initial explanation. (Although this is now available).
Even so, as one online commentator suggests: “whenever you’re curious how near humanity is to destroying itself, you can check the status on the Doomsday Clock homepage. It’s good to stay abreast of this sort of thing so you can plan your schedule around it.”