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Given at Design By Fire 2009, Utrecht http://www.designbyfire.nl/2009/
"People, places, time. The triumvirate of factors at play in mobile, social, locative services might be familiar at the surface level to designers and developers.
Our relationships to each other, the cities and places we inhabit and navigate have been transformed in the last few years by the technology, products and services that we have designed — but what about that last one of the three — time?
Using examples from the development of Dopplr.com and other services — alongside historical and science-fictional perspectives — Matt will explore what we might call neochronometry and illustrate some directions we could take as interaction designers to treat time as a material."
The talk opens with a short video clip of The Doctor explaining
the nature of Time, from “Blink” - you can watch it here: http://
We have all the time
in the world…
Design by Fire, October 2009
Nederlands Spoorwegmuseum, Utrecht
52° 5′ 13.99″ N, 5° 7′ 52.97″ E
Hello. My name is Matt Jones, and I’m a designer. I work at a
small design and invention company called BERG in London. We
do product, service and media design, and produce our own
products to take to market.
You’ve probably heard of Greenwich Mean Time, or the Meridian
Or you might have heard of the Royal Observatory
Which is where the Prime Meridian of the World passes through...
Here I am, half in the east of the world, half in the west.
So this is where maps start, or end.
P.s. it’s the 125th birthday of the Prime Meridian this week...
“Where time comes from…”
And here’s the Observatory. “Where time comes from...”
What does that
Where Time comes from?
What does that even mean? Where maps start?! The arrogance!
How can we even say such things? Well - what I want to talk about
today is how we, as human cultures - CONSTRUCTED time, and
as a result how we, as designers, can DE-CONSTRUCT it and RE-
What is Time?
So, first of all we’re going to have to take a lightning tour of Time.
While putting this talk together I used this book by Dan Falk as a
guide - it’s an excellent overview - touching on the cultural,
cognitive and scientific aspects of what we call “time” - a lot of the
quotes I’ll use are from the book.
Let’s start with the science bit...
In the 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton gave us a firm grip on the universe
and how it worked. It was a majestic mechanism - clockwork,
predictable, discrete and very neat!
He didn’t have it all his own way at the time though - from Falk’s
book: “Time, the relationists [e.g. Leibniz] argued, is simply a way
of comparing one event to another.
In the relational view, time is not independent of the material
objects that make up the universe. Just the opposite in face: the
physical objects and their motions are what define the passage of
About 100 years ago, Albert came along and proposed something
very different. His was a much more messy, subjective universe
that we were tangled up in. It’s highly contextual, everything is
deeply interwingled and fuzzy. In many ways, Universe 2.0!
“Physics makes no distinction
between past and future.
Some physicists think of time,
together with space as a vast
block in which past and future
have equal status.
‘Now’, meanwhile is reduced
to a subjective label, just like
This is a diagram of an observer’s passage through spacetime - it’s
a diagram we used a lot as a metaphor when we were designing
is about the future, which you can’t
of the present”
THE HYPERSURFACE OF THE PRESENT! What a great
sentence!!! It is where we all are, right now. Right now? You said
there was no such thing as now. Well, yes. It all gets a bit
Morpheus, very quickly, doesn’t it.
From Falk’s book again: “It is difficult for us to abandon the idea
of a universal 'now." We imagine we can utter the phrase
"everything in the universe that is happening right now" and have
it refer to a meaningful set of events. But Einstein shows us this
statement has in fact, no clear meaning.
Each observer has his own list of events that appear to be
happening "now", and no one persons list is more authoritative
that the next. There is no "master clock" for the universe that can
tell us what happened when. "Now" - one of the simplest and
most-often-uttered words in our language - seems to have slipped
from our grasp.”
So if there’s no now, how does time flow?
In the 1960s, the philosopher Jack Smart gave us a clear account of
"If time flows... this would be a motion with respect to a
hypertime... if motion in space is feet per second, at what speed is
the flow of time? Seconds per what? Moreover, if the passage is
the essence of time, it is presumably the essence of hypertime too,
which would lead us to postulate a hyper-hypertime and so on
Hypertime is a favourite thing of one of my partners in BERG, Jack
Schulze. Here he is talking about it with reference to comic
And if you think about comic books, they are kind of Hypertime.
Time flows, there’s a now - but everything is there at once.
We construct the flow in our minds as we read.
"To take the space-time view seriously," [philosopher Michael
Lockqood] writes, "is indeed to regard everything that ever exists,
or even happens, at any time or place, as being just as real as the
contents of the here and now."
This is Planetary, by Warren Ellis - probably one of my favourite
comic books of all time. It’s about secret historys - PLANETARY
are a team of archeologists of secret fantastic things. It’s about
time, and hypertime - and just ended with issue 27. In it, is state-
of-the-art Time Travel theory.
“[Retrocausality] is, roughly, the peculiar state of affairs in
[quantum entanglement, where] the future can affect the present
or the present can affect the past - the subatomic equivalent of
arriving at work before you've left the house. Though it sounds
wildly counterintuitive, there's nothing explicit in the laws of
physics that rules out such influence.”
If you think about it - the number of shows
That feature complex retrocausation loops...
So, perhaps we are becoming pretty literate in such things...
This is a time-based notation -almost a musical notation - created
by Dan Hill of http://cityofsound.com to describe the overlapping,
interlinking media of the LOST story... around, through and
beneath the TV broadcast...
Steven Johnson maintains that the complexity of our media is
making us cleverer...
Which leads us to this thing - our brain.
From Falk’s book: “Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter, writing
in a recent issue of 'Nature Reviews - Neuroscience', says one can
think of the brain "as a fundamentally prospective organ that is
designed to use information fom the past and present to generate
prediction about the future. Memory can be though of as a tool
used by the prospective brain to generate simulations of possible
A San Diego man known as E.P. suffers from [a brain injury]
Fifteen years ago, an infection destroyed large portions of his
brain's temporal lobes. he has forgotten his past and cannot form
new memories. Writer Joshua Foer gives a moving description of
E.P. in a recent National Geographic cover story: "Without
memory, E.P. has fallen completely out of tome. He has now
stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately
evaporate... Trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a
past he can't remember and a future he can't contemplate, he lives
a sedentary life... He is trapped in the ultimate existential
nightmare blind to the reality in which he lives." and yet his
daughter reports that E.P. is "happy all the time. Very happy. I
guess that's because he doesn't have any stress in his life."
How much of that "perception [of time]" is rooted in biology, and
how much is cultural? "We have no dedicated sense organ for the
measurement of elapsed time," [anthropologist Alfred] Gell writes.
"To speak of the 'perception' of time is already to speak
Time is cultural?
To speak metaphorically - to come to the crux of it, is to speak
from the cultures of time we have constructed.
M-Time vs P-Time
Another book... Edward Hall - “Beyond Culture”
He describes cultures as broadly tending toward M-Time or P-
I first came across this reading Joi Ito’s blog... where he discusses
how his use of the internet moved him from being M-Time to P-
“M-time emphasises schedules, segmentation and promptness. P-
time systems are characterized as several things happening at
Classic dictum of M-time societies: Ben Franklin famous’ equation
but it stretches back before this:
“...the quantisation of time may have been part of a larger trend of
assigning numbers to previously uncounted (or poorly counted)
entities – what historian Alfred Crosby has called the "quantitative
revolution." Anthropologist Anthony Aveni points out that
perspective painting, double-entry book keeping, polyphonic
music, monetary standards and a new precision in weights and
measures all appeared on the scene at the same time. "In a
relatively brief span of years around 1300," he writes "virtually
everything in the western world became an essence to which a
number could be assigned - a sea change in the very perception of
The idea of linear time...
became a cornerstone of the
Western world view. It may
have paved the way for the
Scientific Revolution and the
By the end of the 17thC,
Europeans viewed time as an
abstract entity, something
wholly independent of human
But anyway - this world view jump started the industrial
"...the clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the
modern industrial age" - Lewis Mumford
...the use of clocks and calendars (specifically the Gregorian
calendar) to mark time has probably penetrated farther than the
West's other well-known cultural exports, such as the English
language, liberal democracy and rock music (to name just a few).
For anthropologist John Postill, "clock and calendar time" - he
abbreviates it to "CCT" - is "one of the West's most successful
exports. Indeed, he claims there are "no reports of successful
resistance to it."
Controlling our metaphors of time has been of utmost importance
to Ceasars, Popes and Rulers throughout history - this is the
French Republican Calendar, from the time of the French
Revolution. I was introduced to this by my friend Tom Coates -
more from him later (!) though.
These charming ladies are the personifications of the new months
“Amid nostalgia for the ancient Roman Republic, the theories of
the Enlightenment were at their peak, and the devisors of the new
systems looked to nature for their inspiration. Natural constants,
multiples of ten, and Latin derivations formed the fundamental
blocks from which the new systems were built.”
For instance, it’s currently Vendemiare the 29th!
“Each day in the Republican Calendar was divided into ten hours,
each hour into 100 decimal minutes, and each decimal minute
into 100 decimal seconds. Thus an hour was 8640 conventional
seconds (more than twice as long as a conventional hour), a
minute was 86.4 conventional seconds (slightly longer than a
conventional minute), and a second was 0.864 conventional
seconds (slightly shorter than a conventional second).”
Changing our time-cultures has moved from being a expression of
power, to an expression of lifestyle...
"We're living in a time famine" adds Harvey Moldofsky, director of
the Centre for Sleep and Chronobiology at the university of
Toronto. "There isn’t enough time in our waking periods to
accomplish all of the expectations industrial society requires of
From Falk’s book again:
“For us, [in the Western Industrial world] time is inanimate: we
feel that it passes at a constant rate, with no heed paid to man or
machine. We can neither give it a boost nor slow it down. For the
Maya, however, time was organic – and men and women were
intimately involved in its passage.
Because time was organic, it was also responsive to the actions of
man. In fact, keeping time on its course was a community effort;
everyone had to pitch in.” - interesting...?
Sociologist Mike Donaldson notes that in the Dreamtime, "time,
place and people were as one. One knew the time by the place one
was in, and by the company one shared." - sounds like mobile
The Ancient Greeks had two words for time. Khronos was the
personification of ‘m-time’ - the relentless passage of linear time.
Here he is, painted by Goya, eating someone. From this subtle
hint, you may discern he is the ‘villain’ of our tale...
The other word was Kairos - which is sort of the ‘best possible
time’ - Kairos was the embodiment of flowing opportunity and
looking in a haystack
for a needle and
Julius Comroe Jr.
This is my favourite definition! Could we create a system that
increased the happy little coincidences in your life as your travel
through the world?
Back to this diagram... Which was very much our “parti”. Dopplr
was about building a model based sharing your travel plans with
people you trust, so that you could see your coincidences in the
is about the future, which you can’t
future and maximise the Kairos... But it also became about the
bottom of the light cone - the past... more of that later...
We tried to make Khronos as ‘fuzzy’ as we possibly could, to
maximise the opportunities...
“For the world to
be interesting, you
have to be
manipulating it all
Everything begins with an E(no)
Play to find the perfect line
We wanted to really turn this into a tool for finding the perfect
line. And hopefully keep it delightful and playful while doing so.
This is a diagram from Will Wright of ‘local maxima’ in a
continuous landscape of fun... This was a design document, not a
UI element, AFAIK.
Travel time maps / Stamen / MySociety
This is some work by Tom Carden of Stamen for MySociety.org -
a UK NGO that shows travel times into central London. Using
time as a lens to examine place is powerful stuff...
Which has now turned into a product called Mapumental, which
also gives you sliders on house prices and ‘scenicness’ or natural
beauty, for you to make descisons on where to live...
Lastly on our lightning tour of time, a specific slice of culture that
we’re all probably involved in... technology’s impact on our
cultures of time.
This is the Harrison H4 chronometer - the most important clock
ever. It allowed the first accurate finding of Longitude, and hence
greatly enhanced world wide trade and communication by sea.
From New Scientist: “Today’s optical atomic clocks that hold
thousands of atoms in a lattice made of intersecting laser beams.
The design, in which ytterbium atoms oscillate or “tick” at optical
frequencies, has the potential to be more stable and accurate than
today’s best time standards, which are based on microwaves at
much lower frequencies.”
Since Harrison, our accuracy at marking time, allows us greater
accuracy in marking space...
Resulting in a pulsing blue dot telling us exactly where we are, and
when we are, all the time.
Maybe not. From “In search of time”:
“The introduction of the cell phone - which has become
ubiquitous in industrialised nations towards the end of the 1990s
-is making time 'squishier than ever." "Squishy here does not
mean slow; it just means that we are more now connected than
ever, and this in turn, is radically changing the way we manage
out time. As rushed as our culture may be ... it contains pockets of
"soft time" - especially when friends plan their evening and
The paradox is that this “Squishy-time” or “Fluid-time” as Michael
Kieslinger and his team at IDII Ivrea researched in 2003/4 is as a
result of advances in “REAL-TIME” computing in networks.
“Real-Time”, historically through the 60s, 70s and 80s was
reserved to complex control systems in things like nuclear power
stations, but as moore’s law advanced it moved through to less
critical applications such as video game graphics rendering. More
and more, all our information systems can be described as ‘Real-
Increasingly, technologies like XMPP and PubSubHubBub are
changing the internet from something asynchronous to
something synchronous, and real-time.
People to watch in this: Jyri Engestrom, ex-Jaiku and ex-Google is
increasingly talking and publishing on “real-time”
...and Tom Coates, creator of FireEagle, one of the first big users
of XMPP has been thinking about real-time products and the
mindset we need to generate them for longer than most.
This talk was directly inspired by him and his talks at Webstock
and FooCamp this year...
...even TechCrunch is challenging m-time interaction norms , in
response perhaps to the rise of real-time
Who’s figured out what it’s good at?
Ok - this is a cheap shot, and Wave is a very exciting thing that’s
challenging existing paradigms for communication...
...But it seems kind of ‘orthodox’ in its UI and interaction
behaviour - at least with the initial client (is that even the right
word any more!) that’s been released for it?
Even though it’s using new language to describe itself (you share
‘waves’) is it using any new interaction design language to
introduce new behaviours?
And that’s the thing.
In discussing the “real-time product mindset” with Tom, we
talked a bit about some of the lanugage of the discourse we use...
I’ll ping you. X pings Y then Z happens. PING! PING!! PING!!!
Pings overwhelm with their “nowness” - what if we didn’t think
about pings, but... Heat?
This is a heat-map by Mike Migurski of Stamen (again), and
individual events that might be realised by pings, instead are
aggregated into a different type of signal, something that we can
read very easily... How might we use a metaphorical switch like
this in our interfaces and products to transmute...
2mins of The making of Star Guitar. You can watch the whole
thing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GF0-wGbRqEs
Back to Schulze.
We are not dentists. I believe we need to engage with cultural
constructs of Time and bring them into the reconstruction and
design of our products and services.
Red Dot Fever
There’s a term called “Red Dot Fever” - I don’t know who coined it
- maybe Mike Migurski of Stamen, or Aaron Straup Cope - but I
first heard it from Tom Taylor of RIG. It refers to the acne that our
maps start to contract once connected to internets.
Kevin Slavin of Area/Code and NYU’s ITP programme gave a talk
recently about his work, which he characterised as being in
response to GPS and mapping technology: “We can know exactly
where we are, all the time - F*ck That.”
Much as artists responded to photography with a rejection of
photorealism, and a move to abstractions as deeper examinations
of ‘reality’ - he wants to respond to our perfect knowledge of
where we are with playful or provoking ‘neogeographies’
Little Hand Fever
So, culturally, we’ve had the same thing with time for a while...
even though our clocks have only been internet-connected for a
short period of their existence...
And here are some responses, just by way of inspiration perhaps.
This is “The Average Day” limited edition watch by designer
He’s a friend, but no relation! (But they are lovely watches)
This is the one that my other design partner Matt Webb wears.
Here we can see it’s almost exactly Orange o’clock.
And here’s an experiment with video Webb was doing - deforming
the time-base of each pixel.
The Khronos Projector by Alvaro Cassinelli
Here’s some similar, earlier work by Alvaro Cassinelli - THE
Here’s some lovely work turning time into solid forms by Berlin’s
ART+COM... reminds me of The Invisibles.
These are all from a great list of these time-deforming artworks I
found, compiled by pioneering video/code artist Golan Levin:
On the service side - I mentioned Keislinger and Fluid Time
earlier - he’s now part of a consultancy that has productised the
work they did at Ivrea into services that aim to work with city
infrastructures to create fluid, flowing experiences for its
Email Clock, Tom Igoe
This is some neochronometry for sure:
“For every new email I get, it ticks forward one tick. The speed of
the ticks is dependent on the total volume of mail in my inbox.
The higher the number of kilobytes, the faster the ticks move.”
Che-Wei Wang also of ITP in New York.
“3.16 billion cycles”
A 60 rpm (revolutions per minute) motor drives the entire
mechanism. It rotates once every second. The following pulley
rotates once every 5 seconds (1:5 ratio). The next rotates once every
60 seconds or 1 minute. Then 5 minutes, 1 hour, 1 day, 1 month, 1
year, and 1 decade. The decade wheel carries the load of the large
arc. The large arc rotates once every century. The final ratio
between the 60 rpm motor and the large arc is approximately
Which leads us to the Clock of The Long Now... Which you
probably know... From “In search of time” again:
“Writer Brian Hayes is ... critical [of the Clock of the Long Now]:
by assuming that civilisation 10000 years from now would share
any our values, let alone our desire to keep track of time, we're
committing an act "of chronocolonialism, enslaving future
generations to maintain our legacy systems."
Here’s a nice simple example of objects or systems that declare
their lifespan, their projection into the future via a service aspect,
like this simple design touch in Howies Hand-Me-Down jacket of
a name tag that encompasses generations. The coat of the longish
And I think Howies have hit on something with that, something
we aimed to do with Dopplr too... My friend Matt Locke summed
it up really nicely...
2008 Personal annual report for Barack Obama
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Manchester Boston Washington Kabul Berlin Denver New York Chicago
January 05 February 04 June 04 July 20 July 24 August 28 October 16 November 04
You took 234 trips in 2008, which In 2008, you spent
added up to 337,729 km or 92% of the
distance to the moon.
In 2008, you mostly coincided with:
You have 4 travellers in your network. They travelled a
total of 657,789 km in 2008, and everyone on Dopplr
Joe travelled a total of 1331.4 million km or 8.9 AU in 2008:
the approximate distance to Saturn from the Earth as
including Des Moines and Washington
of January 2009.
Your personal velocity for 2008 was 38.10
including Peterborough and Washington km/h, which is about the same as a You spent the most time in Chicago. Lauren Your carbon for 2008
six-lined race runner lizard.
Michelle Kurtz has a tip: “The Publican. Amazing beer
The 5 most popular cities in your network are list and melt in your mouth food. In the Fulton
including Washington and Detroit
Washington, Columbus, Cincinnati, Denver and Miami. Market area.”
The furthest distance you travelled was to Kabul
(11,211 km from Chicago), which is the 829th most
popular city on Dopplr. The shortest distance you 42,299 kg CO2 (4.2 Hummers)
travelled was to Oregon (6 km from Toledo). Based on figures from Fueleconomy.gov, 1 x Hummer
H3 4WD truck produces nearly 10 metric tonnes of
CO2 a year. The visualisation above uses this figure to
illustrate your carbon from Dopplr as calculated by our
friends at http://amee.cc and is an approximation only.
The city images above sourced from Flickr and are used under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence: Sunset on the Charles by Pear Biter, Pennsylvania Ave - Old Post Office to the Capitol at Night by wyntuition, we'll meet again by chaosinjune, Colorado State
Additional imagery by Flickr users: Gongus, Matthias Winkelmann, Wendy Piersall, Spotbott and Beard Papa
With our Dopplr Annual Report we were trying to tell tiny stories
with data. Here’s Barack Obama’s report...
So, time is a material, a substrate - a canvas.
Back to this... remember the lightcones describe all possible points
we could occupy in the “past” and the “future”
is about the future, which you can’t
Ben Cerveny, talks about interaction design as ‘sculpture in
possibility space’ - interventions that create or shape spacetime,
sociality and systems.
Jelly lives on the
A conversation with him earlier this year featured this phrase...
It spawned a huge long post on my blog about location-based
services, mobile, social networks yadda yadda. Search for
“jellyfish” on magicalnihilism.com - but the jellyfish is a metaphor
for interaction in spacetime I keep coming back to.
A big balloon of opportunities in the future that pass through the
surface of “now” to become trails, tendrils of interactions and data
as part of my history...
Both the jellyfish and the cones seem to show how thin “now” is...
but that’s what the blue dot and the second hand seem to fix on.
And what a lot of our m-time thinking is resulting in.
At BERG we keep coming back to a theme of designing
“macroscopes” - it’s a term we discovered through John Thackara.
It’s something lets us see both the small interactions and their
aggregation into very large systems at the same time.
Here & There
This is something we explored with the “Here & There” map
Which gives you the perspective of being able to see where you
are and where you’re heading at the same time.
Now & Then?
How might we make a “Now & Then?” macroscope?
Something that really was the embodiment of Kairos.
Which is not to say Khronos needs to be replaced - I think I have
given him a bad rep.
Khronos is pretty useful after all.
I just think he needs to be balanced.
That we need to balance a sense of being alert...