If the digital present is already history, what is the future?
I’m at Le sujet digital in Paris and just heard Tim Barker give a fascinating talk about time and the digital, which also happens to be the title of his book which I’m looking forwards to reading. He talked about how technology is changing the way we experience time, from a linear idea of time, suited to narrative and the written word, to today’s time where the present is stored and then processed or rendered or represented almost-instantly but not quite instantly – leading us to think of the present as already the past. He started and ended his talk by showing the video Boomerang from 1974 where Richard Serra filmed Nancy Holt as she experienced the echo in her voice that used to come with long-distance telephone conversations.
Electronic circuits delay and briefly archive the present in order to process it, or at least, to process the data captured that represents the present. Thus, Tim Barker argued, today we experience the present as past, as already-archived. He relates this to Boris Groys who sees history as a “series of processional presences” as well as to art historian Terry Smith‘s ideas of “living in a condition of contemporaneity”, with pasts that keep returning, as well as to media archeology’s work on analyzing the material basis for our experiences with technology.
Another example of an artwork that plays with this is Mark Hansen and Ben Grusin’s Moveable Type, an installation in the lobby of the New York Times building, which rummages through the archives of the newspaper (history) as well as search terms and comments entered on the newspaper’s website in real time by readers (the present). The present becomes history, is mixed into history.
In Tim Barker’s words: “The present is continually delayed, given the same material existence as the past so it can become signal for the computer that is indistinguishable from the signal the computer receives from the archived data.”
There were lots of references to theorists and philosophers in the talk (Flusser and Kittler were key but there were many others), and I’m guessing Tim Barker’s book contains a wealth of material for anyone interested in time and the digital.
I found the idea of the present as already past quite fascinating, but wonder about how this might affect our experiences of the future, if we see the present as already history. Is the future also compressed into a sense of history?
Predicting the future through data about the past and the present is increasingly common and apparently desirable. I’ve previously wondered whether we really want to predict election results as Nate Silver did using data, and I’ve been fascinated by Barabasí’s startlingly accurate predictions of where people will go next based on their earlier movements as tracked through mobile phone data. The baby trackers I wrote about in Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, and briefly in a blog post, also claim to be able to predict when your baby will wake up or be ready for a nap or be hungry, all based on historical and real time data. Indeed, the main point of the Quantified Self movement is to improve yourself, to control your future by understanding your past and present through data.
I’m not entirely sure that the experience of the present as already past is only a digital phenomenon. Surely diary-writing would have the same effect? Or writing a letter, knowing that the present you are writing in would be the past by the time the recipient received it, or even as you yourself reread it a moment later? How different is that to the echoes and delays of the present in the 1974 video of an echoed voice?
Data’s promise that we can use the past and the present to predict the future can also be read as a linear, teleological experience of time. The future becomes visible through “objective”, data-driven predictions.