Some weeks ago, while at the pub, a friend told me about his lunchtime habits at a job he used to have. He worked downtown Toronto, not far from a movie theatre. When he took his lunch break, he’d go to a movie. Or, rather, he’d go to half of a movie, as that was all the time he was afforded. Later in the week, he’d schedule his lunch hour so that he could return to the theatre and see the rest of the film. He paid full price both times. It got expensive. This is how, he said, he got the idea for theatres showing half-movies. Patrons would buy a full-priced ticket, but it would be valid for two halves of the same film – each to be watched whenever suitable.
Of course the point wasn’t just to create a new business model for movie theatres (although that might happen, too). And the point was not simply to give people something different to do at lunch. It was to make the lunch hour feel longer. The point was to extend time, or at least, alter the perception of it.
Two years ago, Alexis Madrigal proposed that 2013 was the year the ‘stream’ – that seemingly infinite cascade of Internet-generated information (like Twitter or your Facebook feed) – finally “crested”. That hasn’t necessarily come to pass, despite the continued truth that, as Madrigal put it: “It’s too damn hard to keep up. And most of what’s out there is crap.”
That may still be the case, and yet, as more and more users use mobile devices to browse the Internet – and more of them than ever are using Facebook, and its ever-flowing news feed to get there – it seems difficult to believe the stream has quite finished. That pulse of dopamine released each time a new item (or, as our brain interprets it, opportunity) appears, remains addictive. As Madrigal rightly pointed out, the Internet is never finished. Apparently, we are still obsessed with how it’s being created. Now is still where we want to be.
It’s exhausting. At every moment, you feel as if you’re already running behind. The digital world, as it operates currently, always tells us we’re trying to catch up – to the rest of humanity, and to ourselves. I have a phone that tracks my steps. The GPS calculates how many I take every day and charts my daily number of steps on a graph. It could do more, if I chose to let it. It could track what food I eat and my general caloric intake, or analyze my sleep.
What kind of data is this? Though I understand the point of counting steps (it is thought that 10,000 per day helps overall health), I also understand that I am not a step-producing machine. To pay too much attention to the step counter – or whatever tracking device one chooses – produces a weird result, in that it relies on a strange logic: that I’ll extend my humanity by becoming more like a mechanized, digital device.
This is, after all, what the tracking system is designed to bring to mind – death, or how to postpone it. It demands that your time be spent gaining more time. Constantly. And yet though it suggests a future, in reality, it knows of no such thing. It’s not designed for the future at all. It doesn’t actually care if you live longer. It is designed only to care about your state of being at any given moment – right now. All it knows is that you are not doing something in this very moment. You are not walking. You are jogging. You are eating a piece of fruit. You are eating a pizza. Whatever.
“Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote a couple of years ago in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. “Time itself becomes just another form of information – another commodity – to be processed. Instead of measuring change from one state of affairs to another, we measurer the rate of change, and the rate at which that rate is changing, and so on.”
Remember when the iPhone was released? Maybe not, but the accepted wisdom is that it was a game-changer. It’s worth considering in what way. The great promise of being connected all the time was that it would bring us all closer. In many ways, that has happened – our digital devices bring us closer to one another, via the stream usually, but only in the moment; minute-to-minute or second-to-second, but hardly ever much longer than that.
Perhaps we should have expected this Now existence. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, the predecessor of the one that counts my steps, the moment was seen as a break from everything that came before it. When the fourth version of the phone was marketed, this was literally its slogan: “This changes everything. Again.” One version after that, Apple told us the iPhone 5 was “the biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone,” an entirely auto-referential remark. For something apparently so futuristic, it was odd that time – the past or the eventual – was missing entirely. It was a tool only for Now.
This is maybe what made Elon Musk’s debut of Tesla Energy this week so interesting – a new kind of rechargeable battery to power everything from a residential home, to a city. This, too, is a technology that claims it can connect us, though in a slightly different way. Musk’s batteries could be, like the iPhone, a breaking point, when whatever we did in the past becomes almost immediately obsolete. The expense, as with other new technologies, may be initially somewhat prohibitive. But by Musk’s predictions, widespread integration of Tesla Energy’s battery systems will substantially curb, or in an ideal scenario, destroy utterly, our reliance on fossil fuels.
This is significant, not just for the environmental possibilities. It is important for how we think about the technology we create.
Musks’ battery, a connective technology – replacing power grids just as the smart phone replaced phone lines – is entirely historical in nature. It is not a tool for the now. Unlike the iPhone, it is completely designed for the future. The very purpose of its existence is not to forget about yesterday or tomorrow, but to consider them vital. Unlike that step counter, it cares about our survival. Unlike other technologies of late, it requires us to think past the now, and of time as associative and linear, measuring change from one state of affairs to another.
It doesn’t simply change how we see technology working; like interrupting the afternoon to go to a movie, it changes our perception of time.