The Coming Crisis in Real-Time Environments:
A Dromological Analysis
Ronald E. Purser
Department of Management
College of Business
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94132
Submission to the Organization and Management Theory (OMT) division,
Academy of Management Conference
The Coming Crisis in Real-Time Environments:
A Dromological Analysis
This paper explores and critically evaluates the so-called "real-time" perspective associated with the new media of instantaneous digital communications. Drawing from the work of French postmodernist theorist Paul Virilio, the paper examines, as well as makes speculations about, the cultural implications of digital technologies, particularly in terms of the topographical texture of temporality as we move from chronological to chronoscopic time. In addition, the now popularized notion of "real-time" technology management criticized for its narrow technological determinism and instrumental disregard for lived time and human experience. Finally, the paper considers alternative topographies of time which involve the development of a participatory consciousness.
Historically, the emergence of new technologies has led to profound changes in our sensibilities as well as radical alterations in the collective field of perception. David Lowe, (1982) in his study, The History of Bourgeois Perception, argues that perception is shaped by a collective interplay of factors. Communication media, one of the main factors in Lowe’s theory, acts to frame and filter the way we perceive the world. Basing much of his theory on the work of Walter Ong, Lowe traces shifts in culture that correspond to changes in media: from orality to chirograpgy in the Middle Ages; from chirography to typography in the Renaissance; from typograpy to photography in bourgeois society; and from photography to cinema and television in the modern world.
We now stand at the brink of another profound cultural shift, moving from mass communication to interactive digital media—what Paul Levy (1998) refers to as virtualization. Virtualization is not strictly a technological change, but a different mode of cultural representation. Interactive digital telecommunication technologies are radically altering our personal and collective perception of time, speeding up and accelerating the pace of public and organizational life. As Harvey (1990) has observed, the post-industrialized world is now in an intense phase of time-space compression.
While flexible accumulation, or "post-Fordism," was a response to the previous crisis of capital overaccumulation during the 70s and 80s, we are now entering a new economic era which I refer to as "Gatesism" ("Post-post Fordism" is much too cumbersome of a term). Gatesism represents a shift from a flexible to an instantaneous mode of accumulation. This configuration is coupled to the dynamic and logic of late capitalism, in which new information technologies provide the means for accelerating turnover times of capital in production (Harvey, 1990). Emerging real-time technologies remove the friction of the real world, by promising ever more "user-friendly" interfaces. E-commerce, for example, collapses the distance between producer and consumer, eliminating the need for intermediaries in the supply and distribution chain. Real-time consumption holds the promise of "instant gratification," where consumers can buy practically anything, anytime, anywhere. The one-click order feature pioneered by Amazon.com is but one example of how real-time technologies produce the sense of instantaneity. Indeed, the medium of cyberspace enables images to copied, circulated, exchanged and consumed at a far more frequent and faster rate than the consumption in the material economy.
Dromospheric Pollution on the Information Superhighway
In less than a millenium we have progressed from looking through Alberti’s window of linear perspectival vision in the Renaissance to gazing at Gate’s Microsoft "Windows"—the dominant frame into the world of cyberspace. Millions of people everyday fix their gaze upon this flat screen – a technological residue of linear perspective that originated with Renaissance artists. Perspectival technologies have historically been thought of in terms of bridging spatial distance. For example, the telescope was considered as a device that allowed the observer to overcome spatial distance. But as Romanyshyn (1989) points out, the invention of the telescope also created the phenomenological sense that the moon was farther away from us. Talbott (1995) notes that such perspectival technologies are both "a symptom and cause of increasing distance" (p.278). Similarly, cyberspace collapses the sense of distance on the one hand (by creating instantaneous connections), while maintaining the phenomenological sense of a distanced subject that "interacts" with informational objects. In cyberspace, movement across surfaces of information objects—is metaphorically referred to as "surfing the net." Linear perspective is apparent in cyberspace by the sense of extension that occurs when "navigating" and "traveling" down the "Information Superhighway."
Classical linear perspective, which mapped the landscape and physical space through geometric coordinates against an apparent horizon, was based on a perception of distance and relief between the observer and that which was observed. With the advent of digital technologies, such spatial distance and temporal relief collapses. What emerges in its place is a heightened sense of immediacy—a "real-time" perspective. Hyper-perspectivity is now apparent as the time it takes to traverse space appears to have remarkably shrunk, creating popularized images of the "global village," "spaceship earth," and the "Worldwide Web." Yet in the midst of this technological conquest of space, we have given little attention to the fact that our temporal ecology is suffering from a new form of pollution—what Paul Virilio (1997) calls "dromospheric" contamination.
The term dromospheric comes from dromos, meaning a race, running. Virilio (1997) contends that the science of ecology has neglected the influence of different regimes of temporality that are correlative to the emergence and diffusion of telecommunication technologies. Dromospheric pollution has to do with the unperceived contamination of "time distances" and compression of our "depth of field" (Virilio, 1997, p.40). In addition, Virilio (1997) maintains that ecology "…deprives itself deliberately it would seem, of its connection with psychological time" (p.23). Indeed, a major source of dromospheric pollution stems from the dominance and hegemony of clock-time as the sole measure and conception of time in organizational and managerial discourse. When coupled to the accelerating and time-distantiating (Giddens, 1991) effects of digital communication technologies, we have the makings of a temporal regime.
Chronological to Chronoscopic Time
Virilio (1997; 1995; 1994; 1991) has gone to great lengths to show that the essence of postwar telematics involves the virtual elimination of both spatial and temporal distance between events’ occurrences and their representations. Speed is no longer limited by moving across geographic distances by means of physical transport—that is, movement through chronological time. Rather, speed is equated with real-time data transmission moving at the speed-of-light—giving rise to what is now understood as instantaneity. A key driver of chronoscopic time is the shift to an instantaneous mode of production and consumption. Virilio characterizes this digitalized speed-up as a shift from chronological to chronoscopic time.
Chronoscopic time, however, is still bound to and dominated by a clock-time world, but it represents a movement away from a cultural rhythm based on analog and spatial sequences, to a world punctuated by discontinuous temporal intensities fixated on the present-instant. Symbolically, such a shift from chronological to chronoscopic time is analogous to the difference in how time is read-out on an analog versus a digital watch. Chronological time is apparent in the mechanical and sequential movement of the analog clock, as we "tell time" by noting the spatial location of hour and minute hands. Unlike their analog counterparts, digital clocks continuously flash an instantaneous read-out of the temporal present-instant. Digital clocks flash a "real-time" display, erasing the sense of transitional sequential movement. In some respects, we do not so much "tell time" when looking at a digital clock, as much as the clock "tells us." Table 1 below shows the shifting orientations and cultural representations associated with the shift from chronological to chronoscopic time.
Table 1. Contrast Between Chronological and Chronoscopic Time Features
Historical time, narrative time (before, during, after)
Instantaneity, exclusive present (underexposed, exposed, overexposed)
Linear perspective Space as extension
Geometric perspective based on physical horizon and terrestial landscape
Global vs. local time
Real-time perspective Despatialization –collapse of distance and extension
Telemetry and digitization based on virtual horizon of the image
Relative speed of geographic transport
Concrete presence against an apparent horizon
Telepresence, trans-appearance, loss of horizon, distortion in "depth of field"
Tyranny of distance
Tyranny of real time
(Remote control action)
Degradation of natural environment
Pollution of biosphere
Degradation of collective imagination and memory
Pollution of temporal ecology
Major Psychological Disorders
Spatial alienation, psychosis, and depression
Temporal alienation, nihilism, distortion of reality principle
Temporal Sense-Making. The shift from chronological to chronoscopic time involves a radical change in temporal orientation, and the very means by which we make sense of our lives. Chronoscopic time signals an intense compression. The extensive time of history, chronology, and narrative sequence implodes into a concern and fixation with the real-time instant. What used to comprise a narrative history—sense-making based on a knowledge of the past, present and future--contracts into the buzz of a flickering present. For Virilio, the metaphor of "photographic exposure" replaces the sensibility of time as a succession of moments of present duration and that of extension in space. Digital media produce a temporality akin to photographic time, where time does not so much pass or move sequentially as it erupts, is exposed, and breaks the surface (Virilio, 1997, p.27). Rather than making sense of time through the unfolding of a narrative (before, during, after), time is perceived more in terms of abrupt and discontinuous irruptions of varying intensities (underexposed, exposed, undexposed). Virilio claims that real-time technologies have an effect of narrowing our time sense, refocusing our attention exclusively on the present, or what Walter Benjamin (1994) simply calls, "now-time." Thus, a key feature of real-time technologies is that they function as a sort of monochronic filter that screen or cut out concern for the past and future. Noting this trend, Virilio (1997) states:
…the time of the present world flashes us a glimpse on our screens of another regime of temporality that reproduces neither the chronographic succession of the hands of our watches nor the chronological succession of history. Outrageously puffed up by all the commotion of our communication technologies, the perpetual present suddenly serves to illuminate duration. (p.137)
In a chronological world, time as duration was coupled with space as extension. Calendars and clocks served as the dominant means for regulating and synchronizing political, social and economic activities. The emergence of a chronoscopic world parallels the advance of electronic data transmission technologies, which send and receive signals at the speed-of-light. This amounts to a new time standard based on real-time capability for instantaneity, and an accelerated perspective focused on intensive duration of the "the real" moment replacing extensive duration of history.
Perspective. The hegemonic global temporality that Virilio anticipates is a digitalized extension of the perspectival conquest of space. Conquest of space would not have been possible without the products of perspectivisim--accurate maps and representations of the actual terrain, which allowed the observer to occupy an externalized perspective in which the globe could be viewed as a knowable totality. Such maps could abstractly represent the whole population of the earth in one single spatial frame (Harvey, 1990, p.250). Spatial precision provided the tools for drawing property lines, specifying territorial boundaries, delineating social and administrative domains, and of course increasing the accuracy of communication routes (Harvey, 1990. p.249). Space not only became conquerable, but this totalizing vision altered the epistemic order of society.
There was a sensibility, however, that the map was an imperfect representation of the actual terrain--that the "map was not the territory." Classical linear perspectivie gave us the lens to create a map of reality. In contrast, cyberspace introduces a new global vision and fundamentally different sensibility, where the cartographic image of the globe no longer needs to stand in for or represent the "real world" because in cyberspace the image has become "the world." Digital hyperperspectivism is creating a new epistemic order, wherein the map is the territory, and, following Baudrillard’s (1983) argument, even precedes or supersedes the actual world. As Nunes (1995) points out, the potential for connectivity in cyberspace "precedes the virtual world it purports to trace; the ‘map’ of this territory it itself the territory—both globe and world at the same time."
Whereas the Renaissance revolution domesticated space, the Information revolution is domesticating time. Networked communications combined with digital media is producing a "global time," which has the potential of relocating and reorienting the whole population of the earth in one single time frame. Thus, in addition to a total spatial mapping of the globe, we are now witnessing an effort toward total digital mapping, an attempt—to use Bill Gate’s term—to create an ubiquitous "digital nervous system," a total temporal connectivity. Virilio’s dystopian vision of global time suggests we will come under the dominion of a "single, monolithic perspective," the so-called perspective of "real-time."
For the first time ever, history will be played out under a single form of temporality—global time. Previously, history unfolded according to local temporalities, local spaces. It unfolded in regions, in nations. Now, however, globalization and virtualization have initiated a world time that prefigures a new kind of tyranny…Tomorrow, our history will be played out in the universal time of the instantaneous. On the one hand, real-time becomes more important than real space, and distance and expanse take a back seat to duration, an infinitesimal duration. On the other hand, the global time of multimedia and cyberspace dominates local time or cities and neighborhoods. Dominates it to the degree that even now we are considering replacing the term "global" with "glocal," a contraction of global and local. (Virilio, )
Limit Speed. Speed as a phenomena in modern life became prevalent when physics separated time from space in the study of heat and movement, leading to such concepts as kinetic energy and vectors. In chronological cultures, the revolution in modes of transport led to the urbanization of space. Communication across distances took place at a relative speed, and communities lived in their own local time. Spatial proximity to terrestial infrastructures such as ports, railways and airports was a key source of economic advantage. The upper limit on speed was that placed on terrestial movement across spatial and geographic terrains. Following the urbanization of space, revolutions in digital transmission technologies—which approach the limit of the speed-of-light—will fundamentally change the topological texture of our temporal environment. The speed of electromagnetic waves reaches an absolute velocity, establishing a new globalized time standard. We have passed from the local relative velocity of terrestial transport to the global and absolute velocity of digital media transmission. Interactive digital technologies will have the effect of "urbanizing time" as we know it. Drawing from McLuhan’s notion that media technologies as "extensions" of man come to function as a total environment, Virilio points out that "…speed is not used solely to make travel more effective. It is used above all to see, hear, to perceive, and, thus to perceive more intensely the present world."
Social Time. As pointed out above, revolutions in modes of transport—namely the railroads and the automobile—urbanized agrarian space. The vector of progress associated with the growth of modernism mobilized whole populations. The revolution in interactive instantaneous transmission, because it has the capability of eliminating spatial and temporal distance, will have an inversion effect on social behavior. Instantaneous access to virtually any source of information or service, where "everything simply and automatically comes to us," leads to a growing inertia. The computer real-time interface replaces the geographic interval that was once based on spatial and temporal distance. With anticipated advances in virtual reality technologies that allow for remote action (teleaction), this trend toward behavioral inertia in technological society will increase. Teleaction reduces the need for movement and mobility. Commenting on this foreseeable trend, Virilio states:
…the overequipped able becomes the equivalent of the equipped disabled. There is a menace of infirmity and paralysis. But also a psychological menace, for the future generations of implemented interactivity who could see the world reduced to nothing. Generations may experience a feeling of "great internmen," of an Earth too small for the speeds of transport and transmissions, a feeling of "incarceration."
Politics of Time. Politics in a chronological world was enacted within the limit speeds of terrestial movement across geography. Similarly, war (politics by other means) was primarily about movement and intrusion into foreign territory. State politics was concerned with maintaining a territorial economy and defending national boundaries. Empires with superior transport and war technologies could traverse space and gain control from a distance, colonizing distant lands and countries. Politics based on a tyranny of distance required mastery of spatial movement. Politics based on a tyranny of real-time requires mastery absolute speed. Absolute speed is the royal road to absolute power. Real-time technologies obliterate the barriers of distance, which erase the clear demarcations between "global" and "local," leading to an increasing homogenization of cultures. The new political economy is based on a tyranny of real time, where the speed of commerce dictates local behavior. War in the new global economy is based more on a policy of dissuasion and global control of information. The Gulf War was the first "live war," which occurred in a local space, but was global in time. Privacy issues, electronic surveillance, and other associated risks of cybernetic control increase as global information networks become ubiquitous.
Ecological Concerns. Virilio contends that we must now go beyond the concerns of a green ecology to encompass the new challenges posed real-time technologies. For Virilio, ecological destruction in the post-industrial/cyberspace economy should be traced to the destruction of distance. The will-to-speed unleashes the absolute speed of real-time technologies, annhilating real space. Dromospheric pollution of our temporal economy is degrading our relationship with the natural and social environment, and radically altering the tempo of lived experience. Pollution emanating from eco-digital technologies leads to a loss of appreciation for the vastness of natural space, a vastness which provided protected intervals of time, periods of delay and relief between events and action.
Digitally induced ecological problems calls for a grey ecology, where critical attention is placed on the dromospheric pollution of time distances and the reduction of real space to nothing. This form of bio-mental pollution has a hidden factor, having to do with how real-time technologies are distorting and diminishing our perceptual "depth of field." What is key to Virilio’s analysis is the perceptual and aesthetic nature of the environmental crisis.
According to Virilio’s theory, a fundamental perceptual distortion is occurring as the result of mutation of our cultural aesthetic. We are moving from the passive, small-scale optics of geometric linear perspective, to the active large-scale optics of digital media. Small-scale optics, which is derived from linear perspective art in the Renaissance, is extension of human vision as expressed in painting, photographs and film. An apparent and visible horizon serves as a key point of perceptual orientation for making sense of scale and perspective, and a deeper horizon grounded in our collective imagination is instrumental in deriving meaning from our situated experience. For some thing or object to exist, it literally must stand out against the background of a horizon. The depth of field in small-optics is based on the preservation of spatial distance, giving rise to such distinctions as "near vs. far," "here vs. there," etc. In contrast, with real-time/large-scale optics, time moves at the speed-of-light, erasing distinctions based on spatial distance. Having instantaneous access from any point in space to virtually any other point in a "real-time instant," renders such spatial notions as "near vs. far," "here vs. there," meaningless. The result: a distortion of our depth of field and fundamental disorientation.
The "trans-apparent horizon" of digital media supersedes physical and cultural horizons, where "…the far prevails over the near and figures without density prevail over things within reach" (p.26). Moreover, real-time technologies introduce a "bug" or mental virus into perceptual field as a new horizon (trans-apparent) generated purely by digital media and electronic transmission of images (trans-appearances) that takes hold over the normal boundary line of the physical horizon, and also plays havoc on the deep horizon of our collective imagination and memory (Virilio, 1997).
In what amounts to a fundamental con-fusion of natural, collective and technological horizons, Virilio posits that dromospheric pollution, if left unabated and unregulated, will lead to a sharp loss of cultural memory and a degradation of collective imagination. Lamenting this loss, Virilio (1997) states:
…a practical consequence of the emergence of a third and final horizon of indirect visibility (after the apparent and deep horizon): a transapparent horizon spawned by telecommunications, that opens up the incredible possibility of a "civilization of forgetting," a live (live-coverage) society that has no future and no past, since it has no extension and no duration, a society intensely present here and there at once—in other words, telepresent to the whole world. (p.25)
One of the latest proponents of the real-time perspective in business, Regis McKenna, (1997) rejoices this state of affairs, as he exclaims:
We will increasingly find that the technologies of speed will not gives us the time to see or plan beyond the horizon. We will have to think and act in real time. We cannot choose to do otherwise.
"We cannot choose to do otherwise?" This technological imperative sounds dangerously totalitarian. For McKenna, the demand for speed overrides human intelligence and judgment. Fast decision-making in real-time requires instant answers. In order for us to "adapt," we will have to develop a hyperintelligence (we have no choice), which is not situated in the horizon of human-scale optics, but in the transapparent horizon. Hyperintelligence is pure algorithmic knowing, indifferent to, and decontextualized from, local spatio-temporal horizons. The totalitarian overtones are indicative of the fact that the techno-fundamentalisim inherent in the real-time perspective will redefine and alter the very meaning of human intelligence. To think and act in real-time terms requires a certain kind of willful blindness to the future. To succeed in a real-time economy, people will be expected to function as hyper-informed yet disembodied instruction followers.
Because of the light-speed velocity of electronic data transmission, coupled with the ubiquitous presence of telecommunication networks, accidents will also become more global in scope. Previous accidents such as train wrecks, airline crashes, collapse of buildings, were confined to local territories, and situated in local spaces. We experienced a glimpse of this new type of "virtual global accident" in the stock market crash of October, 1987 which reverberated instantaneously around the globe. The recent Y2K millenium bug was another example of virtual global accident in the making, which required a massive, globalized effort to fix the problem. Critical decisions affecting human and social affairs will increasingly be delegated to computers and network technologies. The risk of global accidents increases as human agency is transferred to computer algorithms.
As alluded to above, perhaps the greatest danger and threat to our temporal ecology is the erosion of human judgment. The ultra-compressed light-time-speed of this temporal environment demands instant reactions to events (in the perpetual present). The time required for sound human judgment, communal reflection and deliberation--the sort of relief necessary for making sense of the world--is simply not available in real-time. Consider this futuristic scenario which illustrates the loss of temporal relief on the human mind:
You can call for a dual-language text of Marcus Aurelius, or the latest paper in Malay on particle acceleration. Your reading can be interrupted by the appearance of a friend in your portfolio, a look at the actual weather in Djakarta, a film clip of Lyndon Johnson’s inaugral, or, for that matter, anything, summoned by voice, available instantaneously, and billed to your central account. "Go to my files," you might say as you sit at the airport, "and get me everything I’ve said in the last five years about Descartes. I made a remark with a metaphor about the law, coordinates, and virtual prisons. When you get it, put it up on the screen in blue. Take a letter to Schultz and file a copy at home and with the office." But as you issue, you must also receive, and it never stops. …you miss the days of faxes, when you could hold the paper in your hands and when things were a little slower, but you can’t go back to them, you can’t fall behind, you can’t pass up an opportunity, and if you don’t respond quickly at all times somebody else will beat you to it, even if you have no idea what it is.
The man of 2016…is no longer separated from anyone. Any of his aquaintances may step into his study at will—possibly twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty a day. If not constantly interrupted, he is ta least contnually subject to interruption, and thus the threshold of what is urgent drops commensurately. …No matter how petty a matter, a coworker can appear to the man of 2016..in a trice. Screening devices or not, the modern paradigm is one of time filled to the brim. Potential has always been the overlord of will, and the man of the first paradigm (modern) finds himself distracted and drawn in different directions a hundred times a day… (Helprin, 1999, pp.263-265)
Psychological Disorders. In the chronological epoch, a major psychological disorder was that of spatial alienation. Spatial alienation manifested in forms of withdrawal or feelings of enstrangement from one’s surroundings (e.g., urban space, workplace). Other psychological maladies such as depression reflected various degrees of spatial alienation and spatial dysfunctions. Metaphors for depression are primarily spatially oriented, "feeling down," "downtrodden," etc, although temporal orientation is also affected.
In chronoscopic environments, temporal alienation becomes more salient. Wood (1998) describes temporal alienation as a mismatch or discordance between rational/clock-time and lived time. Similarly, McGrath (19xx) notes the importance of such mismatches between rhythms of clock-time and subjective time as sources of stress in organizational settings. Temporal alienation is contingent on two key factors which are inversely related: (1) the degree to which one obeys clock-time; and (2) the sense of one’s own presence (Wood, 1998, p.97 ). In other words, the more one tends to embody and obey the mechanical/digital rhythms of clock-time, the greater the feeling of loss of situated presence in time.
A few words need to be said about this distinction between clock-time and lived-time. As Wood (1998) points out, historically the Western idea of time evolved from Aristotle’s astronomical time, which in turn informed Newton’s vision of an "absolute, true and mathematical time" that exist independently of human presence (p.95). In contradistinction to Aristotlean/Newtonian clock-time, lived-time speaks to our direct phenemological experience of time—a dimension of time recognized by St. Augustine, and later studied by such luminary philosophers as Heiddegger and William James. The interplay between clock-time and this lived dimension of human experience is complex, and I will return to this matter later in the paper.
Suffice for now to note that chronoscopic time is the time of digital communication technology. Just as the mechanical clock commanded and regulated social behavior in the industrial era, the real-time perspective transmitted by digital media is also taking command of social and organizational life. Consider, for example, how telecommunications and computing technologies have blurred the boundaries between work and home. People now talk about having "24/7" access, meaning, of course, that with the electronic prostheses of cell phones, e-mail, voice-mail, faxes, pagers and palm pilots that they are continuously "plugged in" to the global information network. Even Steve Jobs, the man who made it his mission to get a Apple computer on everyone’s desk, confesses how intrusive these devices have become in his own life, and just how obsessive-compulsive his behavior has become as a result of having "24/7" access:
Technology cuts both ways. It’s a double-edged sword. …with high bandwidth to my home in place, people can send me e-mail over the Internet and I receive it instantly. What this means is that they learn very quickly that, if I want to, I can respond immediately, even if I am sitting at my computer at home at midnight. But this also means that if I don’t respond instantly, there’s no cover for me to hind behind. They expect of my now. So, at nine o’clock at night, when I’m with my family, it’s very hard to resist the urge to take fifteen minutes and go check my e-mail. It really has invaded my personal life, I have to say. It follows me everywhere, there is no escape anymore. (Jobs, 1997)
What Jobs fails to recognize is that the increase in technological bandwidth has led to a subsequent narrowing of his experiential temporal bandwidth. He, like millions of others, are embodying the dictates of a digitized "global-real time" temporal regime, diminishing their sense of "real-situated presence" in lived time. One wonders even when Jobs is with his family in the evening, if he is really "there," "fully present"?
Chronoscopic temporal environments tend to foster what appears to be a postmodern form of malaise—what Herbert Rappaport (1990) calls "telepresssion." The symptoms of telepression combine a cognitive hyperactivity that is immobilized and fixated on the present. As outer events are accelerating at a rapid pace, telepression manifests as a defensive reaction to an unknown futurity. Describing the typical profile of the telepressed individual, Rappaport (1990) states:
The future of this type of individual does create an illusion of successful future extension. …they have "marks" on their time lines that give the appearance of plans. The typical problem, however, is that the future is narrowly defined in terms of present business plans, so that the future is usually not very distant. In addition, this "near-future extension" is often crowded and unrealistic. The overconcentration of goals makes the temporal experience of this person disjointed because time moving too quickly means time not personally controlled. It is precisely this sense of no control that causes the feeling of "inauthenticity" that Heiddegger expounded in his philosophical work. The experience of desynchronization with objective time creates the general feeling that there is no clear purpose to life. (pp191-192)
Rappaport’s clinical observations are suggestive of an often overlooked relationship between time and meaning. Indeed, one could say that the ways in which we embody knowledge of time is intimately tied to meaning or the quality of our lived experience. Consumerism, with its barrage of messages of "instant gratification," is a contributing factor to what seems to be a growing telepression epidemic. High impact media messages are designed to narrow our temporal attention to the now-moment. But this narrowing of temporal bandwidth never really satisfies, and, indeed, advertisers are intent on feeding us a perpetual stream of messages so that we become "loyal customers." In effect, continuous hyperattention on the now as the real-time instant of economic transaction actually eclipses the consumer’s sense of situated presence in time (Wood, 1998).
The postmodern subject constituted as a dutiful consumer appears as an Baudrillardian operator without subjectivity or interiority, a human terminal who clicks a mouse to satisfy every passing whim and desire. Living in such an mobius-like immaterial-material world, temporality in chronoscopic environments flashes as a "series of pure and unrelated presents" (Jameson, 1997), making it difficult to construct and weave together one’s life as a coherent narrative (Sennett, 1998). Postmodern temporality:
…can be characterized as an attitude toward time or an experience of time that….places emphasis upon maximum intensity in time, not the living in time that would be a form of praxis, but a more passive fascination or playing…The result is a flashing pointillism, a lived experience as a series of disconnected intensities. Not being able to commit to a future or to take the past seriously, the postmodernist makes do with the present. (Simpson, 1995, p.144).
The "disconnected intensities" which Simpson (1995) attributes to the lived experience of the postmodern self is symptomatic of limiting knowledge of time to the surface of the noumenal world of real-time instantaneity. As Virilio, fond of quoting Paul Klee, states "To define the present in isolation is to kill it." Virilio likens temporal alienation to a sort of "time freeze." With this view, time is seen as an obstacle that can compressed ("saved’) through technological means—whether such means are microwaves or pagers. Real-time discourse is confined to this noumenal-surface world, what Simpson (1995) refers to as "external history." External history is outward-directed, coevolving with the development of technology. It is an instrumental realm where technology is used as a means to satisfy some preestablished end (Tulku, 1987).
Those suffering from acute forms of telepression define their lives primarily in terms of external history; the relationship between time and meaning for them is weak and superficial. Nihilistic attitudes toward life are common. Obedient to the regime of real-time, these people tend to reduce all relations of meaning to instrumental, means-end analysis, "What’s in it for me?" Media reports on dating behavior among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs show many of them deferring it indefinitely, while others approach it as a rational exercise in cost-benefit analysis. Writing before the Internet boom, Rappaport (1990) seems to have put his finger on the temporal pulse of the emerging E-commerce economy. His comments on telepression are worth quoting at length:
…large pool of individuals who cannot effectively extend into the future. In the first case, the images of life beyond the present are stereotyped in terms of career and money. In the broader cases of telepression, the future is more fully blocked, with content that is often just as stereotyped, but in a less predictable way. In either case, the problem centers on the question of whether an individual feels his life is meaningfully propelled by a viable constellation of values. When one lives without a clear value structure, it is both difficult to direct life in the long run and difficult to experience the sense of meaningfulness that comes from following a prescribed course. It is possible to sail a boat, for example, without charts or a compass. However, the absence of a chart prevents the possibility of a journey. One is limited to "day" sailing, so that new destinations and new challenges are out of reach. Eventually the same seascape and circumstances will produce a tedium not unlike the absence of meaning associated with a present-centered existence (Rappaport, 1990, p.192).
Today we hear a lot about those who are consumed by the present, and try to make their living off of it, the so-called "day traders." Certainly, we could surmise, that the future was blocked for the crazed Atlanta day-trader, who gunned down innocent people, behaving quite unpredictably in the face of what must have seemed like a meaningless dead-end. Sennett’s (1998) latest critique on the personal consequences of the new capitalism goes to the heart of temporal alienation. For Sennett, temporal alienation in the new economy, where there is "no long term," manifest in the demise of character. Character, according to Sennett, is shaped by the "ethical values we place on our own desires and on our relation to others" (p.10). The loss of long-term commitments, the destruction of loyalty, and the inability to delay gratification—the byproducts of "flexibility"—in reality makes character development difficult and sets our inner life adift. Yet, the lack of temporal attachments is propagandized (by those who stand to benefit) as the sort of "competencies" needed to flourish in the new flexible economy. For Sennett, such an appetite for flexibility that demands weak temporal attachments is pathological, as it encourages a greater tolerance for fragmentation (p.62).
In addition to the perceptual disorders noted above, a fundamental ontological problem will soon emerge as advances in virtual reality (VR) technologies unfold. VR technologies will soon have the capability "de-localizing" all sensory input. Telepresence and teleaction imply that we will be able to "see-at-a-distance," "hear-at-a-distance," "touch-at-a-distance," and even "smell-at-a-distance." VR technology will present us with an additional, or "double" reality, to make sense of alongside our "actual/concrete" reality. This duplication of reality will require a "split-perspective reality," or an ability to function in what Virilio calls "stereo-reality." The challenges of having to function and operate in two worlds at once will be the source of a great deal perceptual disorders in society.
Real-Time Perspective as a Temporal Regime
The real-time perspective is now the rage in the rush to form dot.com companies and adoption of e-commerce business models. Regis McKenna’s (1997) book, Real Time, seized the day, as it opens with the invitation: "Imagine a world in which time seems to vanish and space seems completely malleable. Where the gap between need or desire and fulfillment collapses to zero. Where distance equals a microsecond in lapsed connection time (p.3)" There is a troubling lack of discrimination between our sense of time passing, what I refer earlier in the paper as lived time, or "psychological time," and McKenna’s compressed clock-time. McKenna (1997) not only conflates clock-time with lived time, but he privileges clock-time and its associative links to technology as deterministic of our consciousness. He defines his position, stating:
Real time is what I am calling our sense of ultracompressed time and foreshortened horizons in these years of the millennial countdown. The change in our consciousness of time is the creation of ubiquitious programmable technology producing results at the click of the mouse or the touch of the button or key. Real time occurs when time and distance vanish, when action and response are simultaneous (McKenna, 1997, pp.4-5).
McKenna (1997) goes on to further define what he means to operate and do business in "real-time":
Almost all technology today is focused on compressing to zero the amount of time it takes to acquire and use information, to learn, to make decisions, to initiate action, to deploy resources, to innovate. When action and response are simultaneous, we are in real time. (p.4)
Time compression of this sort, which for McKenna is the cause of celebration, is for Virilio a matter of deep concern. "With acceleration, " writes Virilio, "there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal—a mix of history, stories, and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies" (Virilio, 1995, p.35). Geometry is negated with real-time technology, as one can be near anything in cyberspace, no matter what the distance. Hence, the need for cumbersome networks of distribution is abolished, and much physical movement can be eliminated. For example, commuting is replaced by telecommuting; attending meetings is no longer necessary with the availability of e-mail, groupware and video conferencing; going to school is seen as a laborious inconvenience in light of the choices that distance learning now offers. Typical innovations and applications of real-time technologies are heralded in the popular business press and digital zines as a positive advance by both consumers and producers alike. Rarely are such real-time technologies assessed for the disorienting effects they may have on our personal, social and collective perceptions. Even McKenna (1997) recognizes that real-time technologies will alter our cultural sensibilities, but his rhetoric bespeaks of an uncritical, inexorable economic and technological determinism:
These instances of instant satisfaction change our frame of reference. They provide different patterns and signals for setting expectations and for judging what is reality, what is truth or fiction, what is good or bad service, what is satisfaction. The cultural and value-laden patterns of our society change as we are taught by our environment to adapt to new ways of doing things. (McKenna, 1997, p.5)
McKenna’s Real Time is among a genre of management books that dictate the need for greater speed and acceleration in organizations, and highlight the importance of challenging time limits. These books share a common and flawed assumption: objective, physical time is superimposed onto lived/psychological time. In other words, the ideas put forth in these books do not distinguish the acceleration of technological time from our psychological time consciousness. For example, McKenna’s conception of real-time has a psychological time component as evidenced in his observation of "our sense of ultracompressed time," but he devotes the entire book to a discussion of economic and technological imperatives for shortening clock-time cycles. The implicit conceptualization of time as money is treated as incidental and unproblematic.
Adam (1998) argues that associating time with money actually has the effect of "detemporalizing time," making it into quantifiable commodity that is decontextualized and disembodied from events. The reduction of time to money presupposes that other considerations having to do with variable and contextual conditions—the time of life and living—are irrelevant and problematic. The machine clock establishes a synchronized socio-economic order that is intolerant of variations from the mean. Mechanized and commodified time is dissociated from the multiplicity of rhythms contingent flux of everyday life. In addition, once time is equated with money, dromocratic consiousness dominates all transactions, geared toward the maximization of speed.
The real-time perspective is a temporal regime characterized by such assumptions that time is exclusively objective, decontextualized, and external to the observer.It is an extension of the modernist attempt to subjugate lived experience to the dictates of the autonomous clock. Time, is, however more complex, relative and multiple in its dimensions and meanings. In essence, McKenna and other authors of "fast" books in this genre have priviledged clock time, albeit an accelerated version, and commodified it, ignoring the fact that human and social time cannot fully be explained by the former. As Adams (1988) points out, "Whilst people may use clock-time to co-ordinate, synchronize and order their social life, this clock-time is the means by which such a social life is achieved, but not an explanation for it." (p.202)
Statements made in reference to time as duration, that is, any attempts to describe rates of change, or trace the timing or sequencing of social action, make use of Newtonian time (Adam, 1988, p.207). McKenna’s real-time perspective as a statement about accelerating rates of change, of the movement toward instantaneity, falls into this category. A key feature of Newtonian time is that it portrays time as an absolute physical reality, and considers that the flow of time is independent of human consciousness. Time in this Newtonian framework is conceptualized primarily as a measure of motion, duration and rates of change. Further, Newtonian time is abstract, decontextualized, and universally applicable. There is an apparent although not direct relationship between Newtonian time and clock time. In theory, Newtonian time is reversible, absolute and flowing continually, whereas clock-time is irreversible, since the numbering system dictates a sequential direction (two always follows one, etc.). We can think of clock-time as a mechanical analogue of Newtonian time. In this sense, "clock time" is a spatial and abstract index for measuring time. As cultural historian Gebser (1985) observed, "To the perspectival age time meant nothing but a system of measurement or relationships between two moments" (p.285). Newtonian clock-time, according to Adams (1988), must:
…be appreciated as an idea in practice: as a material expression of a particular understanding of the natural world, in which time is conceptualised through motion without change, as a spatial quantity which is infinitely divisible units, which can be numerically defined…time as a quantitative measure has emerged as a uniquely human creation…Since it has been shown that clock-time can never be the only social time, it becomes self-evident that social scientists need to use it in conjunction with other forms of social time. (p219)
Beyond Real-Time: Alternative Temporal Topographies
The conception of time as a spatialized quantity—divided into units for measure—is only the surface level, a one-dimensional plane that belies the depth of other temporalities, other topographies of time. Spatialized time is both abstract and linear, defined by quantitative measure, giving rise to such notions as duration, intervals, and sequences. Considering that there are different topographical dimensions of time, spatialized/clock-time can be thought of as the surface layer. Its texture is flat, smooth flowing, regular and relatively characterless. Functioning as a quantitative, abstract concept, it has neither vitality nor meaning.
In contrast, our primary phenomenological experience reveals a qualitatively different temporal texture, characterized by periods and cycles, change and variation, growth and development. In reality, spatialized time is abstracted from a more fundamental, subjective and organic layer of temporality. Clock-time can be thought of then as an "extension," which, according to Hall (1984), is an "externalized manifestation of human drives, needs, and knowledge" (p.129). Extensions function like language in culture, and when they take on a life of their own, we are engaged in what he calls "extension transference." Extension transference is apparent when the substitute takes the place of the process that was extended. Commenting on how this occurred with clock-time, Hall (1984) states. "This principle is illustrated by the way in which we have taken our biological clocks, moved them outside ourselves, and treated the extension as though they represented the only reality" (p.131).
Industrialization of culture was imbued with the clock metaphor, which permeated images of social organizations. With the real-time perspective, extension transference shifts to the computer, our new cultural idol. Extension transference involves a kind of collective amnesia. Clock-time is a collective representation for organizing social and economic activities, which has become abstracted and detached from its roots in consciousness. This process resembles what Barfield (1988) refers to as modern idolatry. We commit idolatry in the way we relate to clock-time and its real-time compatriot, for we have forgotten that temporal phenomena is in actuality a collective representation—a human creation—an extension of a deeper topography of time. We are not idolators because we create idols, but because of our blind worship of externalized clock-time. We are left with a modern picture of time that ignores the central role of human consciousness, and in so doing, treats time as an independent, external phenemonon (which we have to slavishly adapt to).
Given the insights of twentieth-century physics, it is commonplace to know that the activity of the observer is implicated in what is observed. While perception relies on sense organs, it is human consciousness that perceives. It is also an epistemological truism to recognize that the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, is not to be equated with the ultimate reality. When we see a "chair," ultimately what is "really there" is but a pattern of moving particles. Barfield’s (1988) famous analogy of the rainbow can help shed light on the epistemological issue having to do with temporal phenomena. When a rainbow appears in the sky, we can all point to it. But in reality, if we actually walk over to the end of the rainbow, and look directly at it, there will not be anything actually there. What we call a rainbow is the conjunction of particles of water, the sun, and human vision. Like a chair, the rainbow is a collective representation. It is not a hallucination, for we all claim and agree that we see such an entity called a rainbow.
We can extend this analogy to time, since time is also a collective representation. While we all can point to the clock and agree that time is passing, if we go to look directly for time, we cannot find it.Even our sense of the present is a conventional notion, a relative term. If we attempt to look for the present, it slips away. Time appears to be always moving, never fixed. The "present" is very much like the presence of a rainbow, the outcome of a very powerful collective representation. Moreover, the present is not independent of some object that changes as we normally assume. So called "real-time" appears to be a counterfeit.
One reason time is such a slippery concept to understand, is because it is not based in matter. Our conventional approach is to treat time as some objective referent, based in matter. This seems misguided, as we do not have any sense organs for perceiving time. Noting this fact, Adam (1998) argues that in order to appreciate the complexity of time, we need to embrace our sensual embodiment and tap the evocative power of our imagination. As she states:
Since we have no sense organ for time, we need—even more than for the landscape perspective—the entire complement of our senses working in unison with our imagination before we can experience its working in our bodies and the environment. Such an effort at the level of imagination is needed if we are able to take account in our dealings with the environment of latency and immanence, pace and intensity, contingency and context dependence, time-distantiation and intergenerational impacts, rhythmicity and time-scales of change, timing and tempo, transience and transcendence, irreversibility and indeterminacy, the interrelation between Merk- and Wirkwelt, the influence of the past and the projection into an open future. (Adam, 1998, p.55).
It is interesting to note that "pre-perspectival" cultures (Gebser, 1985) were not detached from their own collective representations as we have are with our perspectival worldview. Barfield notes that for us moderns, "…the only connection of which we are conscious is the external one through our senses. Not so for them." (p.11). Given our bias toward the senses, it is understandable then why we have so little connection and such a superficial relationship to time, which, is not in matter. This leads us to consider the epistemological link between time and mind, between human beings and phenomenal world may be of a different, perhaps "super-sensory" order. That order, as suggested by Barfield, is that of participation, or, to use Coleridge’s term, the "primary imagination." To function as moderns, we have suppressed our awareness of our participation with the representational nature of the phenomenal world as a whole, including that of time. Our dominant mode of thinking relies on models (constructed from analytical thought about thought), and then relate to such models as if they were actually and literally true (rather than as representationally and relatively true). In this sense, we have gained the ability of scientific rational analysis, attained the powers of perspective by positioning ourselves as separate from phenemona, but all at the expense of maintaining a nonparticipatory consciousness. As noted above, this has been the function of modern idolatry. Thus, it should come as no surprise why time has been regarded as totally independent of our own consciousness and why such empty notions as "real-time" can be accepted uncritically.
Recognizing the role of participation and imagination in the figuration of temporality leads us to consider other topographies and textures of time. Our dominant cultural concept of time has been limited to the topographical surface—a spatialized view of time—which has led to our propensity to idolize outward-directed extensions. As an alternative, a focus on the participatory nature of temporal perception can help us to "own" and take more responsibility for our own extensions, for human consciousness is correlative to phenomenon. Critical to this process is an examination of how primary imagination (or figuration) constructs our collective representations of temporal experience. Rather than limiting our participation to the surface of time, participatory consciousness offers us a way of exploring the complex topography of "whole-time." An exploration of whole-time may serve as a counterbalance to the real-time perspective with its insatiable appetite for speed, power, and negation of lived human experience.
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