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June 19, 2015

Spoilers and Time

I remember a 1971 National Lampoon article that gave away the endings of a hundred books and movies. Wikipedia and others think that article might have been the first use of the term “spoiler.” But “SPOILER ALERT” has only become a common signpost because of what the Internet has done to time, and in particular, to simultaneity.

In the old days of one-to-many, broadcast media, the events that shaped culture happened once and usually happened on schedule. So, it would make sense to bring up what was on the news broadcast last night, or to chuckle over that hilarious scene in this week’s Beverly Hillbillies. Now we watch on our own schedules, having common moments mainly around sports events and breaking news — games or tragedies. Perhaps this has contributed to our culture’s addiction to extremes.

We need SPOILER ALERT signposts because we watch when we want but the Net is so huge and unconstrained and cheap that it operates like a push medium — the opposite of why traditional broadcast was a push medium. Trying to avoid finding out what happened on Game of Thrones this week is like trying to avoid getting run over when crossing a highway, except that even seeing the approaching cars counts as getting run over.

Tom and Jerry
Game of Thrones spoiler

This change in temporality shows up in the phrase “real time.” We only distinguish one type of time as “real” because it is no longer the default. The default is asynchronous because that’s how most of our communications occur online. Real time increasingly feels like a deprivation. It requires you to drop what you’re doing to participate or you’re going to lose out. And that feels sub-optimal, or even unfair.

Without the requirement of simultaneity, we are more free to follow our interests. And that turns out to fragment our culture. Or liberate it. Or enrich it. Or all of the above.

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November 3, 2013

This mnemonic does not mnemon

I fall forward far more often than I fall back.

I can’t remember the last time I sprang forward or sprang back.

Worst. Mnemonic. Ever.


January 26, 2013

A place for deadlines and editions?

I’m all for the continuous roil of the Internet. After all, time is continuous, so why should information be punctuated? But I wonder what it would be like if a site that consists of continuous inputs worked toward a moment when an edition is published.

This is not a well-worked-out idea, but imagine a site like Reddit or a service like Twitter that decides that every day at, say, 5pm Eastern Standard Time (it’s where I live and it’s my hypothesis) it will publish an edition that contains the best of that day’s content as determined by some crowdsourced methodology: upvotes or retweets or some such.

Of course we could do that already: every day just pluck out the most upvoted contents and declare them to be an edition. So, for this idea to be more than a mere aggregating, there would have to be consequences to not making it into the edition. The idea is that the contributors would be competing for the limited space on the front page. The items that didn’t make it would be preserved but taken out of the roil. It would thus change not only the rhythm but also the social dynamic.

Maybe for the worse. I don’t know. That’s why we have the phrase “I wonder…”


August 23, 2012

Time inflation: A 100 years is a snap

Tomorrow, a 100-year-old Norwegian time capsule is going to be opened. (Here’s the Norwegian link, or, see Reddit.) It could be interesting, but my main reaction is: Just a hundred years?

My time scale has shifted.

This may simply be because I’m almost two-thirds of the way through a hundred years. But maybe not.

We’ve got good enough at preservation that it’s hard for me to imagine that there’s anything in that time capsule that will teach us something new, other than what Norwegians in 1912 thought would be interesting to preserve. And for time capsules created these days, I assume our future fellows will just look up the contemporaneous posts about the content. The past becomes less distant when you can just google its wave front.

It may also have something to with the 10,000 year clock project (known officially as the Clock of the Long Now). This is such a powerful idea that it may have reprogrammed my inner clock. How would you build a timepiece that will last for 10,000 years? What a great question! And here’s The Long Now‘s answer:

Designed by Danny Hillis, the Clock is designed to run for ten millennia with minimal maintenance and interruption. The Clock is powered by mechanical energy harvested from sunlight as well as the people that visit it. The primary materials used in the Clock are marine grade 316 stainless steel, titanium and dry running ceramic ball bearings. The entire mechanism will be installed in an underground facility in west Texas.

I know about link rot, and I’ve lived through enough technological change to see how quickly data becomes inaccessible because its required hardware is in the scrap heaps. I know that in a hundred years we may have killed ourselves off, and we may have continued with policies that turn the Internet into nothing but cable tv. So, I’m not making a prediction about the future. What I’m saying is that living on an open Net with indefinite capacity has changed my time scale. The Net can do a hundred years in a gulp. Ten thousand years is the new century.


December 15, 2010

Face of the Year

Time Magazine’s choice of Person of the Year is meaningless as data, but meaningful as metadata. Picking one person as the most influential in a year is almost always just silly. No one takes it seriously except as a signifier of broader cultural currents.

This year it’s Mark Zuckerberg. That seems to me to be one of the many reasonable choices Time could have made. But I have two meta-comments.

1. I’m glad that Time took MZ over Julian Assange. Facebook is truly influential and important. WikiLeak’s importance is primarily symbolic, and it has been given that symbolic importance mainly by forces that want to use it as justification for killing what they don’t like about the Internet — its openness, its bottom-uppity character, its distrust of extrinsic controls…in other words, all that makes it the Internet.

2. The contrast the Time article draws between MZ and the portrait of him in The Social Network (a movie I did not care for) will, I hope, hurt the movie’s chances at the Oscars. It makes vandalism of Wikipedia’s biographies of living people look bush league.

(Lev Grossman’s cover story about MZ for Time is well worth reading.)