Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cyberspace's impact on our perception of time

by Craig Harm
Cyberspace has and is changing the way we look at and deal with time. I would like to open with a short overview of how cyberspace has developed to produce an environment that is making us rethink our perspectives on time. Then, as food for discussion, I am proposing a couple of specific areas where our perspective of time is changing due to cyberspace. My intent is not to compose a comprehensive research piece on time and cyberspace but instead I hope my thoughts stimulate discussion.
From the first humans counting on their fingers, we have looked for better and faster ways to help us with increasingly complex mathematics. While the early abacus and the slide rule were crucial developments in man’s calculating tools, they were still analog devices. The advent of mechanical adding machines in the 17th Century and their offshoot, the cash register in the 19th Century were some of the first mechanical systems to help us with faster more complex calculators. Then in 1944, Howard Aiken at Harvard University built the first electromechanical machine. While it was very slow and huge, it could be called the first computer as its function could be altered by its programming.
These first steps in development occurred over centuries. In only the half century that has followed; gears and motors were replaced with relays, the relays were replaced by electronic switches and the switches replaced with circuits. While the history may be of interest to some, it is important to note that the interest and motivation for the development of these systems all seem to have been driven by the same desire to do more and more complex problem solving faster. The rate of change cyberspace undergoes is continuing to increase at exponential rates: it was just 15 years ago that e-mail came into being—today, it is a major workflow tool.
For centuries human communications networks remained unchanged and stable. There were two ways to transfer information, by land or by sea. The key element in the time to transfer information was the geographic distance between the two parties. With the advent of the telegraph and the telephone, distance was no longer a factor; rather, volume and information retention become the more dominate factors, often restricted by human memory and note-taking. Now, the interconnection of increasingly fast high-volume computation capabilities which created cyberspace bridges all those gaps. Now, geographic location and distance have become negligible factors; the technical inhibitions against transfer and storage of information have also been largely overcome. Broadband is only now empowering the majority of society’s connectivity, and we are just the first few years into the social networking phenomena.
The former ways of knowledge accumulation and transfer were tried and true and had been in use for so long humans could not imagine alternate methods until cyberspace was discovered. Now the 21st century is well underway and many of us have become so accustomed to the rates of change of new communications methods nothing seems to surprise us any longer. Nonetheless, human behavior introduces constant surprises. These changes and surprises, and the profound impacts on human culture and emerging societies, both physical and virtual, demand in-depth and systematic formulation of cyberspace understanding and knowledge. Connected collectivity, operating at the speed of cyberspace still presents challenges to perception and understanding, however.
So as we consider our perceptions of time and how cyberspace is changing that perception consider how business is conducted in today’s cyberspace-enabled environment and how our expectations and management of time are changing as well. Enabled through a connected network of computers we conduct almost any transaction instantaneously. Multi-task capable computers enable applications to run simultaneously. Mathematical problems too complex for the human brain to process are done in the blink-of-an-eye. Functions and capabilities are developing so fast we often are found in a dilemma to buy a system now or wait for the next generation system to be released. Communications have become so easy and so pervasive we are suffering from overload.
What has all this done to us?

  1. Our ability to send and receive communications has driven us to an expectation of immediacy. There was a lag-time expectation when letters and “snail-mail” communications were the norm, we would measure the time with a calendar in days or weeks. With omnipresent e-mail in today’s society that lag-time as dwindled to something we now measure with a watch or stop-watch in minutes or hours. Even the famous Miss Manners now says you should always respond to e-mail or find a suitable method to acknowledge receipt within one business day. This almost instantaneous response culture is forcing us into habits that make us feel disposed to focus more on e-mail response time than content.
  2. If we want something now, we can get it now. Well maybe not physically, but intellectually. The connected- connectivity of cyberspace seems to make omnipotence just a search and a click away. And each search should only have to last a few minutes at most. We expect to find what we are looking for at first glance, and if we can’t we move on. We see this expectation manifested in advertising. The Netflix family “The Right-Nows” who expect and do everything “right-now. The Bing TV commercial about search overload is a satirical example of how the immediacy of information availability is changing how and when we think of things.
  3. The responsiveness, agility, and volume Cyberspace provides are driving us culturally to shorter and shorter attention spans. Think of how we read and review our e-mail. With the volume, diversity and frequency of e-mail traffic we no longer have time to compose or read lengthy, explanatory notes. If something does not immediately capture our attention, we tend to disregard it and move on. We simply have to move on or we cannot get through the information. With the advancement of computer volume and speed, the diversity of topics and the ease of access to our interests we can easily become distracted away from those things that need extended, devoted time. The immediacy of news and information about any subject imaginable is driving us to move from one topic, issue or event to another with very little dwell time. As they say, old news gets boring and our propensity to look for new topics causes us to soon forget ongoing issues. Cable news may have been the first to bring this phenomenon to the forefront, cyberspace exasperates it. YouTube, FaceBook, news feeds and blogs are just a few of the cyberspace environments that experience this phenomenon of short-lived information.
  4. Our willingness to wait for new technologies is becoming more and more tolerable. The time between version updates, computing advancements, and technology implementation is continuing to grow shorter and shorter. With the costs of older technology dropping as new technology comes out, there is an inclination to wait, as maybe the existing prices will drop with the release of the new technology. Or the converse is true; the old technology will soon become obsolete so we may as well wait. Think of the rush and push for the release of Windows 7. With warnings of ending support for older Windows versions coming out from Microsoft, the retail industry moving to sell new machines loaded with Windows 7 and our interest in the new capabilities promised many people withheld buying new hardware and software until Windows 7 was released.
  5. Cyberspace has added a completely new element into our time management. The activities available within cyberspace, the connectivity cyberspace provides and ease of access are increasingly adding to our daily lives and tasks. Just because it is out there or available does not mean it can fit into the existing priorities of our daily lives. Complaints about the volume and management of e-mail ring from the business world, academics and our personal lives. Compound that with keeping up with news feeds, social networks and web-based entertainment and you have the makings of a true crisis in daily time management.

I am sure there is much more to this topic than what I have expressed in this blog. In fact, the availability of this blog and your interest in reading it is causing changes to your own perceptions of time. You may be thinking of time related questions about this SENDS blog. What is the frequency of postings? How often does it need to be checked? Can I set up a reminder to help me manage my reviews? Are the topics still viable or have they already been overtaken but subsequent items that compete for my interest?
I look forward to your comments and discussions.

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