Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Time Out of Time

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From Contents Magazine:
10 Timeframes


There are 200 of you in this auditorium. So every minute I don’t talk saves about three-and-a-third hours of human time. That’s a pretty serious ratio. Every one of my minutes is collectively 200 of yours.
Of course in actual time a minute is just a minute—but is this true? A minute when you’re asleep is nothing. A minute on Twitter is as many as half a million tweets. If it was your job to read them that’s a month or two of full-time work. A minute in the early days of the universe, a few million years after the big bang, is pretty much like any other minute.
I’ve been talking for around a minute now. If this speech was a century long we’d be ending the first decade. If it were the 20th century we’d be thinking about getting a telephone installed and wondering if we should trade in our horse for a car. Depending on where we lived, of course.


You know that decades are a recent invention? Decades are hardly a century old. Not the concept of having ten years of course, but the concept of the decade as a sort of major cultural unit, like when I say “the 90s” and you think of flannel shirts and grunge music and great R&B music, or when I say “the 80s” and you think of people with big hair using floppy disks. You need a lot of change for a decade to be a meaningful demarcation. Back in the 1600s they didn’t really talk about centuries as much either. It was all about the life of the king, the reign (of King James and so forth), or the era.
And then they invent clocks and clocks get cheaper and cheaper. Clocks are an amazing experience, right? Two hands, and a bell. This sense of relentless forward motion and they go in only one direction. Imagine doing user testing on clocks.
You say, “You’re a farmer—tell me about a normal day.”
And the farmer says, “Normally I wake up then depending on the month I might plant or reap the harvest.”
And you say, “How do you know what to plant?”
And the farmer says, “I’ve got this poem that we’ve been using for generations, so like, in June I mow my corn, in August I harvest my wheat with a sickle, stuff like that.”
And you’re trying to build understanding, you say, “That poem sounds really useful. But I’d like to talk about a new approach to time. What if I could divide every single day into 24 big parts called hours, and each of those into 60 little parts called minutes? So now instead of having just a whole day, you have 1,440 little pieces of time and you can arrange them and do whatever you want. What is your reaction to that?”
And I think the farmer would probably be polite but I’m guessing he’d be thinking, “Clock? That’s the single stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”


There’s a great book called The Soul of a New Machine, about what it takes to build a computer. It came out in 1981. And one of the engineers was talking about nanoseconds. That’s one billionth of a second. So instead of 1,440 minutes in a day you have 86 trillion, 400 billion nanoseconds in a day. Here’s one of the engineers talking:
I feel very comfortable talking in nanoseconds. I sit at one of these analyzers and nanoseconds are wide. I mean, you can see them go by. “Jesus,” I say, “that signal takes twelve nanoseconds to get from there to there.” Those are real big things to me when I’m building a computer. Yet when I think about it, how much longer it takes to snap your fingers, I’ve lost track of what a nanosecond really means.” He paused. “Time in a computer is an interesting concept.”
So it’s only a few hundred years ago that people started to care about centuries, and then more recently, decades. And of course hours and minutes. And in the last 40 years we’ve got 86 trillion nanoseconds a day, and a whole industry trying to make every one of them count.
If this speech was 20 years long then, right now, AltaVista would be the dominant search engine, and AOL and Yahoo! would be the most important sites on the web.