Thursday, April 16, 2009

temps perdu


I have a theory about how computer human interfaces shape our perception of time that took shape when I was just out of college. I went to school on the cusp of the transition -- maybe half of us used word processors and fewer owned their own. I put myself through school and the best I could afford was a Brother typewriter that I bought with my boyfriend (I would later buy out his share, with cash dollars pulled from the ATM, when he tossed me over). Which meant I wrote my papers out by hand, arrayed the work in progress in piles (around me on my bed, usually), scribbled and scratched and when I got where I was going, typed them out.

Just out of school I worked long hours in L.A. for a litigation consulting firm, creating court evidence -- scanning texts in question and creating callouts in PageMaker to call attention to the pertinent bits.

The output of my task was reams of paper handouts. It wasn't uncommon to deliver 1000+ pages to our attorneys, carefully indexed and correlated to their delivery of the evidence.

Sixty hour work weeks were not uncommon, and although I was exhausted I was always startled by how little I felt those thousands of pages that moved through my hands.

The theory that took shape was simple: in the absence of the physical artifact we lose our markers in time. In the virtual space I never felt the weight of the work. The hours I spent absorbed in the task flew by and felt much briefer than the hours I was familiar with when handwriting documents and shuffling paper piles in space.

Now, of course, the majority of my work is performed this way; although I still prefer to sketch initial UI designs on paper, or draft outlines or mind maps in the physical world -- and that sketch time is the time, in retrospect, that feels most real and is most memorable, when I look back on a project.

I think the emergence of the chronological information stream which characterizes the architecture of Web 2.0 -- posts that proceed chronologically in a long stream of information, with the most recent post at the top of the pile -- is an effort to restore those markers in world that conducts itself increasingly in the virtual space. The word blog was birthed from "web log", of course -- like a ship's log. Our diaries, our journals. I find I rely on my blog to help me keep track of the passing of time, to recall where I was and what I did, and has a year passed really, since then?

I spend hours in conversation with folks I've never met in real life. The common posture is laptop on my lap, fingers on the keyboard, eyes on the screen. How will this concretion of Twitter and Flickr and Facebook exchanges encode themselves in my memory over time? Will they shape my experience of the world the same way an hour's conversation in a cafe with a friend has? Will I remember it as clearly if I can't recall the way the light fell across his face, the weight and warmth of the coffee mug in my hand?

I'd like to think these exchanges are only a conduit to establishing a real life friendship -- but there are folks whom I may never meet in real life. Whom I could I pass on the street and not recognize, because although I might know their thumbnail snapshot I don't know their gait, or the way they carry their book bag, or the way they shyly say hi to a passing stranger.


em said...

(says he shyly)

I, Rodius said...

Well stated. It's a changing world, and it feels like it's impossible to know how much it's changing, or how much it's changing us. I'm glad to have met you in person.

suttonhoo said...

oh I'll recognize you, em: by your cape. (there's gotta be a cape, right?)

same here, rodius.

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