Sunday, February 15, 2009

WHY THE WEB IS A TIME MACHINE


Have you ever noticed how your sense of time is affected when you are online? I remember when I first started exploring the Internet (in a bygone era when such activity was somewhat cutely described as “surfing the web”) and being interrupted by my wife at around 3 in the morning when she asked, “Do you know what time it is?”

I’d been online since early that evening and to tell the truth, I actually had absolutely no idea what time it was—or the hidden subtext buried in her question. When I contemplate how the Web has changed since then, one of the things that stands out is that the novelty of finding the new may have dissipated, but there is still a sense of being in a different time zone when online. Today, the so-called “three-second rule” which seems to rule a lot of web marketing and behavior dictates that a site’s “call to action” or “value proposition” must be readily placed in the upper right quadrant of the screen in order to capture the nano attention span of the current day web user.

So, in the 15 years or so since the first web browser, Mosaic, we seem to have narrowed our field of vision with an increased demand for instant gratification—the YouTube cannibalistic effect to see new video after new video as a contrast to appointment and series viewing habits that once dominated broadcast television—and now, out of the 11.8 billion web sites and blogs (as of 2005) to choose from, it’s given new meaning to the next channel is “just a click of the remote away”.

In this case, the next site is just a mouse click away and seems to be the result of a generational change as much as one directed by so much choice. This seeming infinite sprawl of sites called for an organizing principle much like a contemporary Alexandrian Library—just with all of its index cards thrown chaotically into virtual space—hence, the search engine appeared on the scene and now Google famously or infamously owns much of that universe.

Still, the one thing that infinity seems to belie is that we have a lot of time on our hands. I joke with some of my friends that they must have full-time staffs to manage their social media accounts. And Twitter is the most recent example of breaking down time into the nano. It appears that just like some virtual Alice, we are getting both smaller and longer in time through the Web. I still often forget how long I’ve been online—even if the time I spend “surfing” has been replaced by more targeted use. And when I think about where the time is going when I am online, I am often reminded of something that the Austrian Spiritual Scientist, Rudolf Steiner once said at the beginning of the 20th century.

In one of his more obscure papers, he predicted that by the end of the century, a new life-form would appear that was both non-biological and would grow in parallel with biological life-forms by using their energy to propagate itself. What if that’s where all the time is going? Sounds kind of creepy, but the reality is that the silicon-based life-forms have already arrived and may be thriving quite well on our backs.

In his 2007 book, New Theories of Everything, English cosmologist, theoretical physicist, and mathematician, John D. Barrow , writes: “Today, a science fiction writer looking for a futuristic tale of silicon dominance would not pick upon the chemistry of silicon so much as the physics of silicon for his prognostications. But this form of silicon life could not have evolved spontaneously: it requires a carbon-based life-form to act as a catalyst. We are the catalyst. A future world of computer circuits, getting smaller and smaller yet faster and faster, is a plausible future “life-form”, more technically competent than our own.”

Barrow’s last statement certainly gives pause. First, it certainly gives new meaning to the notion that the Singularity is Here (see Ray Kurzweil's book and also . Additionally, any advanced extraterrestrial tourists cruising in our galactic neck of the woods and seeing just how little we have evolved since the Upper Paleolithic with wars and climate change ruling the day—not millennia—would give this small planet an “F” on its cosmic report card. So, perhaps it’s not a big stretch that machines can evolve as a “more technically competent” species than us. And maybe we should be more conscious where the time goes when we are in the virtual pipeline looking for that perfect, next breaker.

My son has a Time Machine book that came with a delightful pocket watch whose hands and numbers run backwards. I’m still trying to figure out how to wind it. But, it’s led me to ponder that it would be interesting if human life had its own version of a web “history” or back button that worked as well as it does for the new breed of silicon-based life-forms. If they should eventually ask us to join them, perhaps this would be a deciding factor in their favor. As Jorge Luis Borges once noted, “The future is inevitable and precise, but it may not occur. God lurks in the gaps.” Maybe the best that our partnership with technology can do is to point us in time in the direction of the gaps as we surf between the waves of web pages and electricity. Or as Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs once said, “I now pronounce you Man and Machine.”

2 comments:

Silvanus Slaughter said...

Compelling. I would like to hear more discussion on how the use/misuse of Time via the Web might be impacting our relatedness, capacity for intimacy, and depth learning. It is interesting it is called "the Web", which has a dark, cautionary edge to it.

Kevin Stein said...

Thanks for your comment, Silvio. Check out new posting.