Realtime and realspace

by Rob Horning

7 March 2009


Nicholas Carr has two good posts (here and here) about the hegemony of “realtime.” The upshot is that technology is eradicating the cultural time-space for contemplation. In the first post, Carr points out the atavism in this.

Pretty much the whole history of civilization has been a war on realtime. Culture, we’ve been taught, is what goes on in the blank spaces, the mind-holes that open up when we exit realtime. Before the civilizers came along to muck things up - to put things in perspective, as they’d probably say - the universe was entirely realtime. There was no before. There was no after. There was only the instant in which stuff happens.

Realtime is our natural state - it’s what we share with the other animals - and now at last we’re going back to it. Listen to the birds. They’ll tell you all you need to know: realtime is a stream of tweets. Yesterday, when he announced the twitterification of Facebook, the realtiming of the social network, Mark Zuckerberg said, “We are going to continue making the flow of information even faster.” The first one to remove all the spaces wins.

Accelerating the flow of information is tantamount to commodifying it, effacing the differences between things. It all becomes data to process; if it slows us down, it is an inconvenient datapoint that warrants a more careful calibration of the information stream—the appropriate response in the realtime world would be to put in place a better filter to remove such troubling material.

Speeding up information consumption for its own sake plays into the fantasy that technology permits a kind of ubiquity, lets us be present everywhere through online interconnections, so the maximum potential opportunities are available to us. We can see what all our friends are doing at all times and receive news from every corner of the world as it happens and so on. But it seems that this ubiquity of online presence is counterbalanced by surfeit of information, which flattens it all and renders no opportunity any more compelling than any other. As Carr explains in the second post, “Realtime, you see, doesn’t just change the nature of time, obliterating past and future. It annihilates real space. It removes us from three-dimensional space and places us in the two-dimensional space of the screen - the “intimate portable world” that increasingly encloses us. Depth is the lost dimension.” He call the two-dimensional space “realspace,” the companion to realtime.

Optional paralysis, indifference and solipsism loom, as the coping strategies for the onslaught of realtime and realspace. When our social reality is ironed out into a stream of broadcasts on a feed, mediated by devices that guarantee each of us an isolation in an environment that gratifies our fantasies of total control, the illusion that friends can be monitored entirely on our own terms grows; the requirement of reciprocity begins to seem provisional, old-fashioned, a signal of a breakdown of the better technologies for person management. As Carr suggests, efforts to accommodate “realtime” amount to a regression into pure reaction. Reasoning become passe, particularly when it extends beyond 140 characters. The triumph of realtime takes the celebration of snap judgments (a la Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) to its logical conclusion, where we operate by instinct, confident that it inherently can’t be wrong. That’s a scary thought, if you believe that what we experience as instincts can generally be shaped more easily by exogenous forces, and that only conscious consideration of our impulses subjects them to our internal value system.

We know what gets us into realspace; it seems to me a continuation of the space of consumerism—of impulsiveness, instrumentality, convenience for its own sake, and ersatz individualism. And obviously it is not just going to go away. We are all complicit in it, eventually. At some point it suits our purposes and we go along, as though we control the terms by which we interact with it. We don’t notice the creeping ways in which it begins to dictate terms to us.

So it seems imperative to keep in mind points of resistance, the ways in which we escape realspace and realtime, the periods when we are out of the dataflow that is imposed on us by our devices and are instead in the flow generated by our absorption in our own activity.


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