The Dark Side of the Synchronic Society

During a conversation last weekend about Bruce Sterling's concept of a synchronic society, Chad mentioned how the clock and other mechanical devices profoundly changed our perception of time. Since then, I've been thinking about it some more and it occurs to be that electricity has had just as profound an effect on how we experience time, particularly as it relates to communication and dialog.

When humans first invented language, it was immediate. Face-to-face communication. Synchronous. And until we invented writing about 5000 years ago, it stayed pretty much the same. But once we started putting words down on paper, communication instantly became asychronous. Now time could pass between the sender and receiver. Every advance since then has struggled to close that gap.

Up until the 20th century, written messages could take weeks or months to deliver. Airmail reduced that time to days. Once we realized that we could separate the content from the medium, the telegraph made text-based communication instantaneous (if you discount the operator translation). E-mail delivered on the promise of the telegraph, but preserved an asychnonous quality. Text messaging and chat closed the gap to almost perfectly match the synchronous nature of human speech, doing in text what the telephone makes possible with audio.

The effect of all that has been to eliminate what the historian Daniel Boorstin calls the therapy of time and the therapy of distance. Because we can communicate with anyone from anywhere at anytime, we expect to. And people expect it of us. We have less time to reflect. Less time to process information. We struggle just to keep up with our voice mail and manage our inboxes. In Shaping Things Sterling addresses why a society so focused on time and microhistories is desirable and in fact necessary, but the implications are still disquieting.

Daniel Boorstin's book The Discoverers covers the development of the concept of time, from seasons and calendars to sundials and clocks. It's an excellent read.

Another eye-opening exploration of time is Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. He writes about how time might work if it didn't flow as it does.

A couple other books about time popped up today on the Interaction Design mailing list that I need to track down. Both out of print.

A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently by Robert V. Levine

The Dance of Life by Edward T Hall.
Simon King
Another good book for the discussion of time and how our preception and management of it has changed is the also out of print Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History.
Thanks Simon, I'll definitely check it out. Looking back, I haven't worn a watch since college, and in the year before grad school tried to develop what he calls an "empathetic union with the rhythm of nature." Hard to do that with a 9-6 job, but the idea really resonates with me.
Scott Bower
I haven't had a watch since I moved to Kansas City. Maybe that's why I feel like I have been on vacation for that time? I used to have alot of anxiety living in Atlanta, even though I grew up there. Anytime I go back I feel like I am coming back form vacation. Strange.

I am interested in people's mental maps around time.I was reading a passage in "Black Spring"(I think) a few years ago where Miller was walking around catwalks on a bridge in New York that went down to a river, multiple deescents and ascents. He related his "mental map" of his writing projects, personal goals, and experiences throughout his life. I believe he visualized the pitch, angles, distances and interesctions to his mental image of how long projects were going to take against how important those things were to him. He may have somehow involved the phsicla problemd with getting from one catwalk/idea to another.

You know, I haven't read anything by Bruce Sterling in 10 years, I think the last I read of him was when "Heavy Weather" came out. Thanks for the tips Jeff.
Scott Bower
Where is that spellcheck button....

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