At ISEA this August I’m in a panel on “Uncovering Histories of Electronic Writing” with Noah, Michael and Nick from Grandtextauto, only Nick can’t come so Scott‘ll deliver his part of it. Noah’s going to look at Ted Nelson’s work on hypertext as it was rather than as it’s been represented, Michael’s looking at the history of AI-based artwork and AI-based electronic writing in particular. Nick’s paper contrasts modern new media’s obsession with the screen to early computer’s print outs and teletypes (a draft of what I think is a version of this paper is online as “Continuous Paper“) and I’m going to talk about timestamps. Timestamps? Yes. Here’s my abstract:

Timestamps are the single most defining characteristic of weblogs. The time of writing is so powerful that it not only decides the order in which posts are displayed, in addition, the timestamp for each post has become the standard link to its permanent archive. The precision of a timestamp, down to the second, declares that which is stamped an archived document, potentially permanent, and simultaneously emphasises its transcience: this time is already the past.

With computers everywhere, timestamps have spread and are taken for granted, marking our SMSes, digital photos, emails and weblogs as well as each file we save on our computers. This presentation explores the prehistory of our digital temporality, looking at the long cultural traditions of situating written correspondence by stating the date and place of writing, and at the way in which digital computers, though without clocks at first, have now built the timestamp into every act of expression on a computer. From these dual roots, the presentation then traces a line through the prominence of timestamps in Usenet discussion through the timelessness of 1990s homepages, always under construction, and to the celebration of time in today’s weblogs.

I spent most of yesterday reading about time and beginning to write the paper. I’d forgotten how much I love this: having the space to read and think and write for almost a whole day, examining a topic thoroughly. I’ll have more time for this in the next months, because almost all my teaching duties are completed for the semester. Yay!

I’m going to talk a little about our modern obsession with time, which is quite recent development really. I’m rereading Den kultiverade m‰nniskan, a wonderful book on how industrialisation changed time and culture and even hygiene in Sweden. I’ve found facsimiles of the first postmarks, not introduced until the mass distribution of post, when we began to doubt the system and wanted closer surveillance. Nick sent me links to the first RFCs suggesting we might perhaps introduce a clock to the network so that people would know whether messages sent through it were new or old (RFC 32 and 41 from 1970). The Network Time Protocol Project has a lot of information on more recent work on synchronising clocks over a network. My computer does that automatically now, without me even asking it to. That’s easy to relate to the way in which railways forced standarised time on us in the 19th century, and shipping led to standardised timezones and agreement on a single meridian (Greenwich). There’s even an International Society for the Study of Time!

I still need to find out more about how clocks were first built into the architecture of computers. (Do you know where I should look?)

And then there’ll be the best bit of all: thinking about what time means in blogs. One of the first things Tinka mutilated when she deconstructed her blog was the datestamps. Do you remember? Each post had “posted yesterday” underneath it, I think, or perhaps the words were different. I wish I’d taken screenshots. The Archive annoyingly stopped archiving Tinka’s blog the month before the mutilations began.

11 thoughts on “timestamps

  1. Kevin

    Hey, Jill.Have no comment on timestamps, but I came across this video, and it is in fact a great trip down memory lane:

    Thought you’d might enjoy this. Have a nice weekend….

  2. kari

    That sounds like a _fascinating_ topic. On clocks and computers: I’m pretty sure Andrea Laue covers this in some detail in her contribution to the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities (ed. Unsworth, Schreibman, Siemens), but Matt K. could probably say more about this since he’s contributing to the volume. And have you looked at _Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World_ by David Landes? I haven’t read it myself, but the title’s been on my radar screen for a while. And finally, I think you’ll find Johanna Drucker’s Temporal Modelling Project fascinating if you don’t know it already (under construction, but there’s also a great bibliography on time there if you poke around a bit).

  3. Jill

    Oh, I’m glad you like the topic, Kari! You know how it is when you’ve been enthusiastic about something and then you come back to look at it and think well, maybe it’s just me…

    I’ll look up your suggestions. Thanks!

  4. jacob

    I’m originally from the East Coast of the US but have been living for the past few months in Paris. The timestamps on my blog are still eastern time, though. It’s made me think of the lack of importance for blog timestamps. After all, the web makes it a global medium in which the time zone is constantly different. Not quite sure how this fits into your ideas about timestamps–there’s no question that they’re there, and that the use of them as the standard permalink suggests an importance–but not particularly as a marker of time itself.

  5. Tinka

    Ah, I need to revise what I once wrote about the paratexts of blogging. I’m just caught between my on-line persona and my RL identity – it makes academic writing a touch more difficult. It’s a fascinating topic though.

  6. Rob

    I still need to find out more about how clocks were first built into the architecture of computers. (Do you know where I should look?)

    You mean this in the systems architecture sense, e.g. Pentium having a 2GHz clock, right? In which case, it’s an electrical engineering story. And the clock isn’t really a clock. 🙂

    The word had been overloaded in electrical engineering, to describe an oscillator circuit that sends out a pulse at a constant frequency (e.g. 2GHz). It’s used to synchronize signals getting propagated through the processor or other circuit, to make sure they all perform each step at the same time.

    But it’s a simple pulse wave, and it doesn’t carry any real time information in it. Fortunately, once you have a pulse at a specific frequency, it’s really easy to use it to keep track of time… 🙂

  7. Francois Lachance

    There is a brief entry on a hand-rolled serial publication that muses upon accession numbers and calendarization. It might be of tangentional interest to your timestamp explorations.
    It is part of a project to examie the how the Guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative can be used for the content modeling of blog types and practices. The entry suggests that nothwithstanding a timestamp or paratextual marker the space of the blog is criss-crossed by different temporalities and that counters can be harnessed to change the content offered the viewer based on a record (the every ephemeral cookie) [Note that the technology can track a machine accessing a server for a specific file but that doesn’t mean it is the same viewer each time] What I am suggesting is that besides the timestamps appearing as content there are timestamps appearing in the browser caches or other spots where the files could be stored. There are several time stamps. For example, accessing the jill/text entry through Lynx, I can see Date: Sun, 09 May 2004 13:26:26 GMT and Last Mod: Sat, 08 May 2004 18:46:50 GMT

    In short, it helps to consider timestamps as cueing devices. Timestamps begin to make sense in a series.

  8. Matt

    Jill: That’s easy to relate to the way in which railways forced standarised time on us in the 19th century, and shipping led to standardised timezones and agreement on a single meridian (Greenwich).

    Not only the railways, but the telegraph! Sometimes called the Victorian Internet, harbinger of a new media frenzy as news was now able to travel faster than the galloping horse.

    Agreement on the Meridian was slow in coming. The French had their own!

  9. Francois Lachance

    The book Kari recommends has some very suggestive divisions. _Revolution in Time_ is divided into three parts : Finding Time, Keeping Time, Making Time. This threesome might also provide an analogy for the psychosocial aspects of those timestamps you are studying in relation to the practice of blogging. Initially they assist the blog writer (and readers) in marking the phases of an intentional practice of recurring composition. Blogging once a day in the morning or in the evening etc. The ritual becomes incorported hence finding time — the hour of the timestamp is key. Keeping Time — the timestamp helps organize the archive and retrieve entries. The day and month of the timestamp are key. Making Time — timestamps become labels for a number of traversals through a blog. See the across the fold game at Weez Blog. which is in part about re-investing time and, at times, ties into a reading of archived entries references to what is being discussed in the entry that
    shares a timestamp closely proximate (usual a same day time stamp) to that to entry. Time becomes spatialized. A comment writer to an entry further in the past might make reference to the most recent entry just before the inscription of a comment by a reference such as “elsewhere there is a discussion about xyz” The timestamps affect the sense of simultaneity that is generated by such references. It gets to be fun when comment at T3 to an entry at T1 references an entry at T3 with the diectic “tomorrow” yet that T2 entry is a yesterday to the comment at T3. For example, later this week jill/txt tackles the future of the authorial function via Foucault. Some very interesting presuppositions about temporality are tied up in notions of the author 🙂

  10. Lilia

    just went across a quote from Jonathan Grudin on chronological ordering in blogs ( – may be useful for associative thinking 🙂

  11. Matt K.


    Check out this student project I just got in:

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