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 The precision of a timestamp, down to the second, declares that which is stamped an archived document, potentially permanent, and simultaneously emphasises its transcience: this time is already the past.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.