Monday, February 21, 2011

Slow Time

Tom claimed that one book was enough to last a lifetime anyway, especially if you read it in the special way.
‘What do you mean?’ I’d asked him. ‘What special way?’
‘One word a day,’ he’d answer.

(Jeff Noon, ‘Crawl Town’)

Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass.

(Bob Shaw, ‘Light of Other Days’)

Imagine a sheet of glass the thickness of an ordinary window pane, except it has been engineered at a molecular level so that light takes a very long time to go through it – a staggering ten years, to be precise. When it comes out of the factory, the sheet is jet black. Then it is placed in a scenic spot somewhere in the Scottish highlands, and left there for the requisite ten years. Finally, when the time is up, an image appears of that landscape, by now ten years old, in the same way that the light of faraway stars belongs to the past even as it reaches us in the present.

Now imagine that you buy this sheet of glass and put it in your city apartment, in place of one of your regular windows, so that you can look out on that awe-inspiring northern landscape instead of the buildings on the other side of the street. This isn’t a still picture, but an actual view, with depth and movement and the cycles of day and night and of the seasons.

This scientific advance in nanotechnology is the premise of a very well-known short story by Irish author Bob Shaw, 'Light of Other Days', that was originally published in 1966. Slow glass is introduced here to the reader as a premium consumer product, designed not to relive the past but rather to improve on drab urban aesthetic, although Shaw turns this premise into a poignant story of personal loss.

(I won’t go into the details of that quite yet, except to say that the story contains at least one wonderfully poetic image, of the cleaners that come out at night where the glass is being farmed to polish the windows without making an impression in it.)

I’m interested however in what happens after the ten years is up, an aspect that is not directly addressed in the story. At this time the image will change into the regular view of the street outside your apartment, except ten years ago to the day. And if somebody were to look through that same window from one of the houses across the street, they would see the inside of your apartment not as it is, but as it was. My question is: what would you do? Would you swap that window for one of regular glass? Order another landscape, whether Scottish or otherwise? Or carry on with a window that keeps the wrong time?

In The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand suggests another thought experiment for changing one’s perspective on temporality: from now on instead of writing the year in dates using four digits, try using five. Until the year ten thousand, this will mean adding a leading zero: nineteen ninety-nine becomes 01999, two thousand and eleven becomes 02011 and so forth. Aiming as he did to convince technologists to take a longer view, Brand addressed the suggestion to computer programmers, but there’s no reason why it should be limited to them. In his provocative pamphlet on the death of cinema, Paolo Cherchi Usai employed the same notation as an ironic device against those who assume that the films from the first century of the life of cinema will be around three hundred years from now, let alone eight thousand.

Slow time, a long now: phrases that seem designed to negate the possibility of progressive change, let alone revolution. Were I to try to rescue slowness from this negative association, I could start form the Kunderian idea that slowness is essential to memory – and memory, I contend, is central in turn to any political project that aspires to be democratic. Kundera again, in a different book: ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. Which is another way of saying that memory is anti-totalitarian. But is it necessarily progressive? Doesn’t the preservation of culture – an interest of both Brand and Cherchi Usai’s – connect at some level to conservatism and, conversely, aren’t revolutionary movements at least partly predicated on the erasure of traditions and modes of knowledge that underlie the power structures they seek to overthrow?

I’m no accelerationist, but I cannot deny that there is a tension there. Nor am I unaware that an appeal to slowness at this particular historical time – after Tunisia and Egypt, and whilst the Lybian forces fire rockets at the demonstrators in Bengasi – has uncomfortable echoes with the ritualistic and appalling calls for ‘restraint’ by world leaders who don’t mind repression so long as it isn’t bloody to an unsightly extent.

So, how do you advocate decelerationism, and still claim to be interested in radical political change? I would put forward that we need to do both, slow down the juggernaut of Capital that is running down the clock on the planet and construct alternative futures that are both more equitable and more sustainable. (The latter in particular is a word that urgently needs to be reclaimed from bourgeois environmentalists and injected with far more radical meaning.) But yes, it is also, partly, about what ecologists call conservation, and not just with regard to the environment: indeed so much necessary political action is reactive, aimed at resisting change and the further narrowing of the range of available futures.

I want to keep those political connotations in the air, as it were, even as I argue for slowness in a medialogical sense, as a means of undercutting the fundamental bias of electronic media for the instantaneous and the atemporal. The Net is not only always on, always on the spot, always of the moment; it acts so fast as to make the concept of time itself meaningless. It enacts the perpetual present of postmodernity even in its hunger – that must not be mistaken for historicism – to document and catalogue absolutely everything. Here is a list of all the things that happened in 1964. And here is a list of all the things that happened on the 20th of February in history. Stripped of context, the paradoxical time signatures dictated by the wikilogic suggest that things don’t happen if not casually, or according to a perplexing, inhuman causation that one might as well seek to explain via astrology or numerology.

In the meantime, the world’s conversation continues apace. Twitter no longer allows you to plug into the raw feed without choosing a topic, but pick any of the trending ones and see how fast it ticks over – faster than human eyes could possibly keep up with. Instant worldwide communication has been fetishised to such an unseemly extent that one might legitimately ask: if a Middle Eastern dictatorship fell and nobody in the West was there to hear it, would it make a sound? But it would be equally stupid to deny its value in facilitating organization on the ground and allowing voices to filter out from the sites of totalitarian repression. Yet what the worldwide conversation still predominantly consists of is the sum of inanities. My inanities, which are interesting to me and presumably to the people who choose to ‘follow’ me, and yours and hers and everybody else’s. It makes no sense to call it a conversation and complain that an individual couldn’t keep up with it any more than it makes sense to call the Internet a text and then presume that a single person ought to be able to read it. Furthermore: complaining that it is too fast could well imply that I would like others to stop talking, so that I can be heard.

All of which is fair enough. Still, I do actually practice at least a little bit of what I preach, in that I limit myself to one tweet per day (although I will sometimes respond to follow ups and I took a little holiday from that rule during the last soccer world cup). This partly in recognition of how addicted I could become to Twitter if I made textbook use of it, but also out of interest in the kind of texts that could be produced in such small increments and also, initially, in a vacuum (since I don’t follow anybody so until I got my first follower I was effectively writing into the void. It would in fact be even more perverse to not follow anybody and protect one’s tweets: that would be the proper way of ensuring that you talk only to an audience of subroutines). But I think there is also some value in being temporally contrarian in order to evaluate that imperative to find out what’s happening right now and what right now actually does to our capacity for critical thought.

Slowing down one’s writing as well as one’s reading can assist in this. It’s in that spirit, as well as to answer an entirely practical question regarding how could I possibly find the time to read or reread certain works of literature, that a little over a year ago I started the Slow Dante Reading Project, in which I aim to read (and copy) the Divine Comedy at the speed of one tercet per day. Twitter offered the ideal platform for such a project for the reasons outlined above and also in that each triplet of eleven-syllable lines of Dante’s terza rima is guaranteed to come under 140 characters (whilst the Longfellow translation sloppily exceeds this from time to time). At the outset I estimated a date of completion of February 18, 2023, based on the number of tercets and speculating that I might forget or be unable to post from time to time but that it would be balanced by the occasional double daily dose when a tercet runs into the one that follows it. I’m more or less on track for that, although it remains a decidedly optimistic time frame. Will I still be around in 2023? Will Twitter? More to the point: will I lose interest?

As an exercise, it has been uneven thus far. There are days when I look forward to the next tercet, and days when frankly it’s just a chore; days when the neurotic narrowing of attention on the allotted three lines appears to actually enhance my appreciation of the poem, and others when the enforced fitfulness makes the difficult passages even harder to follow, and the effect drags on from day to day.

However I am less ambivalent about the value of other experiments that interfere with the smooth workings of the perpetual wired present: so not the cool mash-ups a-la How to Be a Retronaut or the brilliant poster art of Sean Hartter, which reinforce the pre-eminence of now and its capacity to subsume all that is past, nor the ubiquitous super slow-motion videos that dilate the workings of the physical world until they acquire some beauty and little in the way of meaning; but rather anachronistic tracks such as Samuel Pepys’ Twitter feed or the diary of the miners strike ‘replayed’ a quarter of a century later, the hauntological detritus of Found Objects, or Justin Bieber’s uncanny pop wail. Lately I’m finding particular inspiration in the almost-daily offerings of If We Don’t, Remember Me, in which cinematic quotation becomes a mesmerising art form and extreme economy of movement and expression is itself the thing that signifies. It’s a picture book that moves, a little, perplexing and at the same time illuminating, with its polished coolness and infinitesimal time loops. Each of these texts has its own rhythms, but they all call attention to their own complex dealings with time and create a reflexive space in which to think slowly.


In conclusion: what of slow glass? With native 3D displays around the corner, I think it would be easy to imagine it remediated electronically: it would after all be but an extension of the desktop wallpaper or the digital photo frame, with the added ability to change the landscape, or switch it on and off according to whim. But what it would lose in the bargain is the view from the outside in that leads to the moving denouement in Bob Shaw’s story, as the visitors discover that the mother and child they could see through the window of the salesman’s cottage in the Scottish Highlands have been dead for some years, and what’s left of them is a likeness slowly seeping out of the glass. What would be lost, in other words, is the very thing that undermines the digital fantasy of absolute control over time, that we can exorcise its ghosts and recycle it into a commodity.

People interested in reading somebody who can actually write about politics are encouraged to read this extremely acute piece by Benjamin Noys on acceleration vs. deceleration. I came to it with culpable lateness as I Googled "decelerationism" not an hour ago. Great stuff.

The snail clock image comes from here via here but that doesn't clarify its actual origin so if anybody knows and they could tell me I'd be grateful. Ta.


Andrea said...

Your quoting Bob Shaw brings a smile to my face. I read that in its Urania version.

George D said...

I find that the weekly rhythm of these posts is often too fast for me(honestly) . You say something, I chew it over, see if there's anything to digest, and it's Monday again. After that, comments are to you and the void. Which is perhaps why I should respond in blogkind.

More response, some time in the indefinite future. For the moment: I very much enjoyed this post.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Andrea: io in questo libro qui.

Ben Wilson said...

Cool idea. Any reason the glass would need to be placed at an actual window?

Interesting discipline you've placed on yourself with Twitter. Mine was self enforced - I simply could not think of a single thing I would want to say into the void in 140 characters. It was only recently that I realized so many people that I've had long discussions with are using it, that it's hard to understand the context of their blog utterances - it's like everyone became telepathic, and in doing so became quite uncommunicative the normal way.

I did notice you followed no-one and presumed there was a deep reason behind it. I didn't realize it was the same reason that I don't play computer games - I have a tendency to get hooked.

Interesting conundrum, can wanting to slow change be non-conservative? The way I think about the term conservative, no, it's synonymous with wanting slow or no change. But that's not the only way to see the term, sometimes it's after regression, rather than slowing, and it wants to regress fast. Like National at the moment, who seem to want to bring back the 90s.

Also, the motivation for slow change can sometimes be quite unconservative behind it all, when you acknowledge that sometimes you can do things faster if you do them slowly, and don't fuck things up and have to redo them. I'm rather like this when I write computer programs - colleagues will complain that I've spent weeks ascertaining how the program currently works and planning out what the changes will be, rather than just jumping in and changing things. But consequently there is seldom any need to reverse my mistakes, and people are usually appreciative that the programs are highly concise and easy to follow, making future changes easy. On the flipside, my business partner is prolific, cranks out code at a colossal rater, but recently I've been charged, along with another fellow, to make some changes in it, and it's taking forever because the original design was so poor. He has written functions that go on for over 30 pages - making sense of the basic structure involves matching up curly braces that could be separated by 15 pages of code.

In a previous life, I was a manager of a support team, and did some research into software maintenance from a theoretical point of view. It was quite an eye opener, considering that it's considered such a dull thing to do, to just maintain code, to be confronted with the statistics. It turns out that maintenance is the bulk of all programming done in the world today. The reason? Code breaks, and conditions change. Working out how to fix an existing system is often extremely difficult because the memory trace of how it works is lost.

Stats were also provide to show that there's a limit to how much code a person can maintain. It's surprisingly little. I've written a lot more code than that over the years - that's only possible because I don't maintain it.

This is an extremely hard sell to management (from personal experience). They believe programmers can keep cranking out change forever. But that's only possible if they do no maintenance, which means what they made will have a very short shelf life.

I wonder if the same goes for knowledge generally. Is there a limit to how much humanity can know and understand? To learn more, we must forget old stuff?

By forgetting here, I don't mean losing the data. I mean losing the body of people required to understand the data and keep the modern world informed about what it means.

Dougal said...

I wouldn't want to disagree with any of this (Benjamin's line about the revolution being the emergency break on the runaway train standing over it all), but a complicating observation, perhaps, to do with twitter and speed:

Isn't it demanding to much, or being not wholly honest, to contrast slowness with a reading of twiter feeds that starts with Everything? Don't users claim their own portion of space to hear from the kinds of people they want to hear from, and might not elsewhere? This may not be the main form of use but that's beside the point if it can be an ideal one, yes? (the same way banal blogging tells us little about the potential of the form itself)

That was my experience, anyway, as the revolt in Egypt spread: the speed with which events were recorded, analysed, witnessed, represented meant that - in ways not available to other revolutionary moments - the movement could be out ahead of the propaganda, deconstructing the official spin as it was written. I found myself sometimes knowing the response to official stories before they appeared on TV that night.

I couldn't have encountered those voices if I didn't alredy have friends and comrades in the region or concerned enough to follow the region, sure, but it felt - feels, rather - like a combination of speed and slowness, a speeding up of information, but also a space in which participants can demand contextualisation and reflection as events unfold - and demand we attend to that - in ways I'm not familiar with from earlier.

[This is written in pre-first week of semester haste, so I'm sorry if it doesn't make sense! Thanks for a fascinating post anyway.]

Studiolum said...

I love this story, and I have always considered it as paradigmatic for the process of cognition (and of creation as well, as conceived by Rilke).

As far as I see, Shaw also gives an answer on the question of what happens after those ten years when the glass begins to convey the ten years older pictures of the same outside world. Old times were happy times, with beloved people still living and moving in front of the window. This is also paradigmatic. Always there is another time, even if at the same place, which is more desirable to see and to live than the present one.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Studiolum: yes! But the 'expired' cottage window also leaves a very interesting question unanswered: why did the slow glass farmer who already lives in the Scottish Highlands install a slow glass window - to look out on what landscape?

(I'll have to answer the other comments later if I can - ironically enough, this is going too fast for the demands of my working day.)

Anonymous said...

John Cage's Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) may be of interest here.
It's being performed (?) at Halberstadt, Germany. For the next 630 years or so. (
Slow listening ...

Peter Hoar

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Peter. I neglected the thread for the last couple of days for the obvious reasons, although I suppose they also have to do with how we perceive time – things get pushed not only into insignificance but also immemorability, and so as Russell Brown has written today in apt paraphrase ‘last week is another country’.

(As I write - at 4.55 on Friday afternoon, Radio New Zealand is replaying soundbites of their coverage over the first movement of Górecki’s third symphony. An unduly sentimental lapse in their otherwise brilliant work, I feel, but others may appreciate it.)

I still don’t want to leave some great comments unresponded to however, even if nobody comes back to check, and although it’s also likely I’ll pick them up in actual posts.

I find that the weekly rhythm of these posts is often too fast for me(honestly) . You say something, I chew it over, see if there's anything to digest, and it's Monday again. After that, comments are to you and the void. Which is perhaps why I should respond in blogkind.

I find this really interesting, and it pre-empts something I was going to write in a sequel to this post about slow blogging in relation to Jaron Lanier’s latest book. I personally consider this a false slow blog, as it were, in that I write few posts compared to most, but it still amounts to close to 100,000 words a year and well over that amount if you include comments. I have considered going down from the current 47 posts (once weekly with five weeks off) to 26 (fortnightly), because I’m keen to maintain a strict periodicity – if I were to just ‘write when I have something ready’ I’d never post anything. However diminishing the number of posts would also narrow the range of what I am able to say, and make some of the more marginal posts less functional to the overall design. I’m not quite ready for that yet. But yes, I do realise it puts quite a demand on readers.

In fact, that’s how I feel about some of my favourite bloggers. I love them, but part of me wished they wrote less often.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Isn't it demanding to much, or being not wholly honest, to contrast slowness with a reading of twiter feeds that starts with Everything? Don't users claim their own portion of space to hear from the kinds of people they want to hear from, and might not elsewhere? This may not be the main form of use but that's beside the point if it can be an ideal one, yes?

It’s also not being wholly honest of me to complain of inanity, which is not encoded in the medium any more than it is in, say, the telephone. Cellphones may be the thing that allows you to inform a friend that YOU ARE ON THE BUS, but we have been reminded this week that they can save lives and be indispensable on a number of levels. That said, and much as I hate to treat #eqnz as a media phenomenon, the hashtags blow those portions of space open, don’t they? If you click on them, you can no longer filter out the dross. And even #eqnz was infested with spammers and peddlers of inanities, when it’s precisely the channel that ought to have been kept as clean, as clear as possible. Retweets obviate that to a certain extent, but there is still a tension there I think.

(And yes, to be very clear: I spent all of Tuesday afternoon on Twitter, of course, as anybody would, waiting for friends to check in. It was a lifeline.)

There is an interesting new feature of Facebook that may illustrate my point: now by default the system hides people you haven’t been interacting with for a while. It’s a way to clean the feed of the people that matter less to you, recognising that noise is a problem - but also, it hides people who post only every once in a while. So if you don’t feed the beast often enough, you become literally invisible.