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Digital time, the unneeded speed


Real time, real loss

Digital technologies and global networks have established the global infrastructure for an overwhelming amount of information production and consumption. This information traffic can be produced and consumed from anywhere in the world through an available connection. Even more important, the amount of information we deal with is the result of a vicious circle. The more the amount of mass produced content grows, the more online publishers increase their amount of produced content. Both of these content are usually free of charge and up-to-date to the minute, resulting to be very attractive for any avid or slow reader. The resulting scenario is the huge amount of information accessible at once. But navigating through this is far from being a natural attitude for us. In fact during the last century we have formidably increased the quantity of contents that we are able to swallow everyday. As early as in the eighties, Theodore Roszak noted in his book The Cult of Information that "A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than an average person could come across in a lifetime in seventeenth century England."1
That was before the Internet. Today, with the ocean of available knowledge floating around and being available at fingertips, the scenario is dramatically changed. According to a study of the University of California, San Diego, an average American man consumes 34 Gigabyte worth of content a day, including a massive 100,000 words of information. Researchers make it clear that we do not necessarily 'parse' a full 100,000 words per day but that this astonishing figure does cross our eyes and ears each 24-hour interval via multiple channels, such as web, TV, text messaging, radio, video games and more. These quantifications are undoubtedly impressive, but they do not disclose the whole truth yet. There is a key element in this feverish and incessant production and consumption of content: its pace. The usually perceived acceleration (together with the loss of free/leisure time) is strictly related to the amount of time we are exposed to the information fl ow. What is usually referred as 'overflow of information' consists of a massive quantity of information to be digested in a short amount of time. There are different mechanisms to stress our attention to be constantly connected to this information stream. The continuous updating of content, for example, represents for us a constant stimulus to check what might have changed, what has happened in the meantime. We are triggered to (practically and metaphorically) press the 'update' button in an infinite loop, similarly to the infinite loop we are entrapped with the TV remote control. More channels are available, stronger is the impulse for checking what is happening on all of them, in order to fi nd something interesting, sooner or later. As a matter of fact we jump from one screen to another inside our daily environment: computer, smartphone, television. All these screens are bulimically feeding us with information, in the digestible form of short experiences. Our attention is more and more often attracted intensively but only for a short while. But the eventual consequence of this sort of real time 'eternal entertainment' has still to be found out. 

Falling into a subliminal culture 

One of the most likely consequences is a change in behaviour; the more content we have to process the less we are able to evaluate it in depth. Dealing with too much content stresses our ability to discern and expose us to subtle or blatant manipulation. As John Thackara, director of the Doors of Perception conference and knowledge network, alleged: "Our dilemma is not that we receive too much information. We do not receive anywhere near the quantity of data it takes to overload our neurons; our minds are capable of processing and analyzing many gigabits of data per second-a lot more data than any of today's supercomputers can process and act on in real time. We feel flooded because we are getting information unfiltered, unsorted, and unframed. We lack ways to select what is important." So we loose reference points and filters, proper framing and, even more important, time to ponder, to let the content settle-we loose more and more the ability to be critic. Moreover, bringing something in the digital realm has yet other specific consequences. 'Digitize' means to reduce the original continuous source to a sum of small portions of data. Digitizing a picture means to reduce it to a grid of pixels, digitizing a tune reduces it to a sum of frequencies and a movie is reduced to a synchronized assemblage of both. Furthermore, in order to be available on mobile devices (laptop, smart phones, etc.), all these media has to be 'compressed', that means that technically similar information (such as similar nuances or close frequencies) will be reduced to single ones, with an explicit and further loss of information (although claimed as a tolerable one). A loss of information means a loss of sense. Let's consider the telephone as a medium. Historically there are countless misunderstandings which happened during telephone conversations than during a live spoken dialogue. Why? In order to be carried over the telephone copper wires, the range of voice frequencies has to be narrowed from the possible maximum of 20 to 20.000 Hertz (the whole audible spectrum) to 300 to 3400 Hz. The telephone's main historical gain, the conquest of a global space of telecommunication, has been 'paid' through a substantial loss of information, and so we have 'compressed' information in both (more) quantity and (less) quality. A few artists have investigated how visually compress information works from the perspective of time. In his work Every Playboy Centerfold, The Decades (normalized) the American artist Jason Salavon explores the possibilities if extreme image compression. Salavon is noted for his use of custom computer software to manipulate and reconfigure media and data to create new visual works of art. Salavon compresses entire decades of Playboy centrefolds (respectively 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s) in a single picture, transforming something like one hundred images into a single one, through a simple arithmetic mean. The abstract, but still recognizable result is a blurred shape of vaguely feminine connotations perceivable through a range of broken up colors and shapes that can be more guessed than actually recognized. Salavon's artistic procedure creates a synthesis of visual information gathered over a long period of time (ten years) and compressed in a single place without any subjective intervention to structure it. Similarly, the American conceptual digital media artist R. Luke DuBois applies a comparable (yet more sophisticated) method to condense large amounts of digital data. His 76-minute piece Academy shows a large number of movie that has won the Academy Award for Best Picture each of them squeezed down to a minute. The movies themselves are untouched, despite the tremendous compression, and the extremely rapid sequence renders the images in a disturbing yet still perceivable way. The main traits of the movies are not lost but achieve a somehow oneiric character and seam to come close to what we instantly might recall from our memory. If the increased speed of information transmission can still be tolerable we might wonder how far are we really are from a standard and authorized subliminal transmission of information. Subliminal stimuli are sensory stimulations below an individual's absolute threshold for conscious perception. This method came to appliance in the fifties when marketing practitioners claimed their potential use in persuasion-although studies later prove that the effect of subliminal messages is only a mild one and does not really manipulate the viewer. The question is whether we might be adapting to receive information in an almost subliminal way. An interesting example of how these mechanisms work is Konrad Becker's, Austrian media artist and performer, Cultural Peacekeeping in the Theaters of Possessions. The performance is set on a hypnotic sound loop (Becker started to compose electronic music in the late eighties) that places the spectator's mind in a relatively relaxed and predisposed mood without noticing it. Becker starts to talk providing controversial information about security, society and culture. He speaks at a constant pace and with an engaging tone making also intentionally use of neologisms and catchy definitions written in big typefaces on a projection screened him along with propaganda pictures leaving in the end the viewer with an undefined feeling of emotional confusion. Negative subliminal communication was also the theme of the 1985 film Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, a 1985 cyberpunk television movie created by Chrysalis Visual Programming Ltd. for Channel 4 in the UK to provide a back story for Max Headroom, an animated television reporter. The film introduces a television reporter trying to expose corruption and greed. In the movie, reporter Carter discovers that his employer, Network 23, has created a new form of subliminal advertising (termed 'blipverts') that can be fatal to certain viewers. These messages were high-speed, concentrated, high-intensity television commercials lasting about five seconds. Their purpose was to prevent channel-switching during standard-length commercials. But during viewing people would be killed by blipverts, literally exploding when exposed to their view. Although we are probably not going to explode, we are unquestionably affected by the progressive and seemingly unstoppable acceleration, the feeling of being in a hurry. As Cecil Webb-Johnson, a doctor in the early 1900s, stated in his publication Nerve Troubles, "Hurry has a clearly debilitating effect upon the tissues".2  

Time in digital design: timeline vs. progress bar 


The timeline is the most popular representation of time in use, enabling us to graphically scale and represent a long history through a simple scheme-pointing events along a line, usually from left to right. This type of data visualization has been used since the middle of 15th century,3 although it has been introduced in force only thanks to the digital grammar. The timeline, in fact, is an essential abstraction in the computer interface aesthetics. It is used by almost every music and video player, showing exactly at which moment of a song or video we are, giving us a sense of the time passed from the beginning of playing and how much time is left to the end. Music is intrinsically indivisible from time. In computer based music composing a software-the so-called 'sequencer'-offers a interface which looks very much alike with classic scores demonstrating one crucial difference though: the clear and detailed description of time.4 The timeline is crossed by a vertical scan line, that becomes a synonym of the current instant and what happens in front of composer's eyes at that very moment- at its left or right are events of the recent past and the near future. Another popular element of the computer software interface is the 'progress bar' that codifies the remaining time that the machine imposes us to still wait while internally it runs it coding codified mechanism. During the first years of the web in which transmission rates where still very low this visualisation tool induced in some users a kind of 'waiting syndrome"' related to the considerable amount of time needed to visualize the requested content. The progress bar has been perceived as a 'promise'. The computer seems to promise to finish a specific and sensitive task. The wait often produces the promised pleasure of something novel, a new virtual object, arriving on the virtual desktop. While the progress bar is active the remaining time looks like a countdown at variable speed. It also can be interpreted though as the computer being busy in some essential internal task, as for example the 'Fake Progress Bar', a humorous free download which simulates a computer action, suggests.5 This software subversively shows a fake progress bar offering an excuse for example to the employee that installed it on the machine at work, to stop working, even if the supervisor is present. And it shows how digital time is just reinforcing the networked time ticking away everywhere in unison. What we are at risk to loose forever is our relation to natural time, "a flow unbroken by machines, punctuated only by the swings or cycles of nature, and thus gentler in its effect on our true selves."6 

Memories will save us from the digital oblivion 

Humans have invented the concept of time and history in order to deal better with the awareness of their existence and the existence of their beloved. History is based on the flow of time and on memory. The web-paradoxically similarly to a human being- is particularly rich of information related to its own age and less about what happened before its birth. Historical events, news, documents and cultural creations since 1994 to nowadays are way easier to find than the ones antecedent the middle nineties; the earlier, the worst, and the later the better. According to this ascertainment our collective recent history is at risk. The ephemeral character of the Internet infrastructure might even threaten our notion of documented history, one of the few antidotes to the continuous, uncritical and overwhelming flow of information. On the other side human-based memories are the physical symbol of information that lasts. Physiologically seen long lasting memory is the consolidated connection between neurons in order to reinforce the storage of information. It represents the base of our knowledge and judgement and it lets us relate to new information based on the earlier one we have experienced before, being the touchstone, the compass to navigate through new information. Sometimes referred to as 'frozen time' memories are the antibodies to a memory-less digital environment in which memories can be easily manipulated or even deleted. The differing of digital and natural time achieves a perfect synchronicity only at one point-death. The content is then senseless and the rush finally stops. Online obituaries established for passed away users of social network are quickly forgotten. Their analogue equivalents in real life do last independently also from the longevity of eventual hosting servers. This is why memories will save us from a potentially terrifying digital oblivion.  


1. Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High- Tech, Artifi cial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking (Berkeley, University of California Press: 1994).
2. Cecil Webb-Johnson, Nerve Troubles: Causes an Cures (New York, Stokes: 1929), in James Gleick, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (New York, Pantheon Books: 1999).
3. Daniel Rosenberg, Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (Princeton, Princeton Architectural Press: 2010)
4. Alessandro Ludovico, The sequencer paradigm, in Read Me: Software Art & Cultures, ed. Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin (Aarhus, Aarhus University Press: 2004).
5. http://www.digitalvolcano.co.uk/content/fake-progress-bar
6. James Gleick, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (New York, Pantheon Books: 1999). 


 
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