XVIII.3 May + June 2011
Page: 80
Digital Citation

Making time

Elizabeth Churchill

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"One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been transformed into a monstrous verminous bug."

Thus begins one of my favorite novels, The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. What is most remarkable about Gregor's awakening, in which he discovers that he has metamorphosed into a dung beetle, is that, in the minutes that follow, his greatest concern is that he has missed his train.

Like Gregor, time and schedules have been on my mind of late. Why? Well, first, I overslept the other day. My phone is my alarm clock. Sadly, my phone had died quietly during the night. Ergo, no alarm to awaken me. Although I did not wake up a dung beetle, I was nevertheless disoriented. Second, about a week ago, I missed a meeting. Well, strictly speaking, I didn't miss it, because I didn't know I was supposed attend it. All I can surmise is that there had been a breakdown in the complicated network of services, applications, devices, and people that constitute the sociotechnical practice of time management called "calendaring." The meeting was clearly listed on my colleague's calendar, but not on mine.

So, given my recent horological mishaps, I have been ruminating on the concept of time and its management through calendars and alerts.

Calendars reckon past and/or future time. The primary purpose of the calendar is to orient our bodies and minds—and those of others—in time and space. In contrast to the fluidity of experienced time, calendars create boundaries between activities. They prescribe the amount of time we should spend on something: 30 minutes with Jane talking about her project, an hour for the budget meeting, an hour giving a lecture on HTML-5, 30 minutes on a mandated management course ... and of course, finally, a day of rest.

To be effective social coordinators, calendars require that we share an idea of how time is structured and named—if we are going to meet for dinner at 8PM, we should share an idea of exactly when 8PM is. We should also share a sense of how time breaks down quantitatively. My minute and yours should both be 60 seconds. However, as we all know, clock time and experienced time can be quite disjointed. Clock time passes at the same rate quantitatively for you as it does for me, but qualitatively/phenomenologically the hours may be rushing by for me, while you feel stuck in slow-motion, like you are swimming in treacle. Boredom, disengagement, and impatience expand the experience of elapsed time while engagement, focus, and immersion compress it. Per the old adage, a watched pot never boils.

Calendars don't just keep individuals synchronized. Calendars, as scholars like sociologist Emile Durkheim tell us, are central to societal order. Calendars are the sentinels of "appropriate" behavior. Minutes and days and hours often have activities associated with them—indications of when we should work, rest, pray, and play. Different social values are placed on different hours of the day and on days of the week; in many calendars, Saturdays and Sundays have less space, reflecting social norms that separate workdays from (non-work) weekend days. Routine, calendared time is central to creating a sense of belonging. In a 2006 article, Tim Edensor argues structured time in the form of everyday rhythms—which he breaks down into institutionalized schedules, habitual routines, collective synchronicities, and serialized time spaces—are how a sense of national identity and belonging is sustained. One can see this play out in my neighborhood, home to many different immigrant cultures. What is considered an appropriate time for dinner differs by several hours: between 6PM and 7PM for some, between 9PM and 10PM for others.

I suspect most of us take for granted the idea that we have a shared concept of time. However, the carving up of time into seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years is a convention. The familiar structure of the predominant Western calendar—the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582—differs from classical calendars like the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca, and the more recent Julian calendar [1]. Notably, Russia and Greece converted to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar only in the 20th century. Further, it has not always been the case that someone in Bangalore could so easily work out what time it is for me in San Francisco. It was only in the 1880s that a uniform time was imposed in Britain; until then, time there varied according to location. Local time stood in contrast to "London time" (such as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT); Oxford was five minutes behind London, while Plymouth was 20 minutes behind London [2].

In his book The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918, Stephen Kern writes of the railroads in the U.S.: "Around 1870 if a traveler from Washington to San Francisco set his watch in every town he passed through, he would set it over 200 times." The railroads instituted uniform time on November 18, 1883. In 1884 Greenwich was established to be the zero meridian, with 24 time zones one hour apart. Countries signed up to this structuring of time one by one: Japan in 1888, Belgium and Holland in 1892, and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy in 1893.

At the International Conference on Time in 1912, the telegraph was proposed to be the method of maintaining accurate time signals and transmitting them around the world. This process was inaugurated on July 1, 1913, at 10AM. Astronomical readings were sent to the Eiffel Tower from where they were relayed to eight stations spaced over the globe. Global time was born, the death knell rang for the quaint custom of local time. We can thus trace our globally shared personal and corporate calendars back to the railroads and their push for the rationalization of time. It's quite fitting, therefore, that missing the train and, as a result, being late for work is foremost in Gregor's mind when he wakes up.

Calendars have ecclesiastical origins; the Book of Hours structured time into routines for work and worship for monks in the Benedictine order. However, in sharp contrast to the quiet, stable regularity of the liturgical life, my calendar is a chaotic beast in constant need of maintenance and management. Meetings pop on and off like jumping beans as the hoping-to-be-assembled try to find a time that works for all concerned. Vigilance is required lest one is triply booked, and priorities are always being calculated: Is this meeting more important than that one, but if so-and-so is there, then that is a good opportunity to get things moving forward. ... Oh no, now they're not going to be there after all and yet I'm committed to going, how do I shift this around... and on and on.

The root of the problem lies in the multiples—multiple calendars and multiple people on one calendar. For the first point, I have too many calendars, and the effective synchronization of my calendars is not a solved problem. Ghost (long departed/deleted) meetings haunt the calendar on my computer, while my mobile phone presents a suspiciously clean blank slate. Sometimes there is little correlation between the two, despite their notionally being jacked in to the same server. For the second point, shared calendars (such a good idea in principle) are a gargantuan, rogue elephant. Herein lie clashes in culture, herein lie power relationships, and herein lie a network of complex dependencies. Routine issues arise for me in the following forms: blank space on the calendar, the curse of durational rigidity, the clash between sociotemporal and biotemporal time, and the problem of travel time. Let's briefly review each of these.

"Idle" time. People routinely look at my calendar to determine when I am free to meet; they plop meetings on my calendar based on what they see as "free'" time. This is based on a fallacious assumption—that if nothing is recorded there, then I am free. It's a misreading of my practice of calendar use: Booked times on my calendar are not simply islands of color in a collaborative paint-by-numbers schematic where the blanks are inviting others to fill them.

Of course, idle time is anathema to the shared calendar in a culture where to be not actively doing could possibly be interpreted as shirking. In my view, days of back-to-back meetings means there is too little time for creative thought or for reflection. Research indicates that times when one is doing the least—for example, when meditating—are often the most creative [3]. The jammed calendar, continual context-switching, and mad dashes from one location to another are emotionally draining, mania inducing, and counter to creativity.

So I sometimes put "meetings" onto my calendar to simply block out some thinking time. I feel sheepish about this. I am reminded of a friend of mine, who, when we were teenagers, used to write things like "peas and carrots for tea" in her journal. Recording peas and carrots was not because of some dietary obsession; they stood in as code for "held hands and kissed," a recording of her encounters with her boyfriend. The code was invented lest her mother should read her journal and be mortified by her teenage explorations. So it is that I transform thinking, writing, and reading into "Strategy" and "Planning," appropriate behaviors for a corporate context. Durkheim and followers are correct: How one manages one's time is an issue of morality and social accountability, not just temporal coordination. It's a tricky business.

Durational rigidity. For the operationally minded, a meeting that is scheduled for an hour must last an hour, even when nothing is being achieved. On the other side of that, sometimes one can just be warming up, just getting to the crux of a problem and the hour is up. The meeting ends, truncating the creative process.

Travel time. Another problem, and one in which a simple technical solution would help, is travel time between locations. When one works in several different office buildings that are miles apart, it takes time to get from one to the other. It would be useful if I could hook my calendar up to these locations and have travel time automatically calculated and reflected. So if a meeting were dropped onto my calendar, travel time would automatically be blocked in—in fact, I could imagine a lot of background calculating that could be done by hooking my calendar up to location and to my social services and applications [4].

Biotemporal time. Working across time zones can be really hard. The cheerful calendar flattens time, sees all times as equal. Calendars are simply tabulated time in a grid; they do not reflect lived time. Odd times for calls can sneak in there, creating social and personal dilemmas: I want to be a good citizen, but I know I am going to be less than my best at that time. Sociotemporal time (as in, when it is appropriate to be working and when not) clashes here with biotemporal time. Being on a conference call when your body and your entire environment tell you that you should be sleeping is simply difficult. Time may be global, but my body is not.

None of my observations is earth-shatteringly novel. There has been a wealth of research in the HCI community, stretching back to the early 1980s, on calendaring—in collocated and in distributed work goups, in the home, in leisure groups, within families, between families, on paper, on personal computers, using mobiles, using location services—but there's still plenty we can do in the world of sociotechnical design to rethink the calendar.

"We shape our dwellings and afterward our dwellings shape us," said Winston Churchill in 1943. We could apply this observation to time; we shaped the calendar and now the calendar shapes us, dictating how we (should) live. True to Louis Sullivan's adage, form follows function. The digital calendar wears its assumptions and its intellectual heritage on its sleeve: computer science, psychology, information architecture, and the ethical structure of the approved-of day. Perhaps we need a new tack.

In Branko Lukic's and Barry Katz's 2011 text, Nonobject, they explore product designs that sit at the interstices of philosophy and technology. They step back from simplistic notions of form and function to shake up how we think about products, to question what is "normal" or taken for granted, and to question the values that are embedded within the typical form of everyday artifacts. In a section entitled "Overclocked," they take on clocks and watches, our timekeepers. Katz writes, "As our measuring devices grow ever more accurate, we find ourselves perpetually 'overclocked,' to use a term familiar to every computer hacker who has racheted up a component to run at a higher clock speed than it was intended for in order to coax higher performance out of a system. We do the same to ourselves." A number of designs are presented: the Tick-Tock Inner Clock that taps against the skin to let someone feel the passage of time and the Clock Book, where time is laid out on pages we can turn—when we want to. Lukic's watches and clocks invite us to rethink how we conceptualize, represent, and manage time.

Let's do the same thing with calendars. Let's take a step back. Let's follow Lukic and take our lead from Architectura Da Carta, the Italian tradition of articulating and illustrating the unlikely, the unbuilt, and the unbuildable. Let's use art, philosophy, and technological creativity to envision a better aesthetic experience, to blast the calendar apart and rebuild it; let's be better about enabling the plurality of private and public times that humans live in parallel; let's automate the calculation of time in motion between location(s); let's build in time for creativity and reflection as social and moral imperatives; let's make a calendar that adapts your schedule when it realizes you have woken up having metamorphosed into a sentient dung beetle.

back to top  References

1. Aveni, A. Empires of Time. Calendars, Clocks and Cultures. Basic Books, New York, 1953.

2. Esbester, M. Designing time: The design and use of nineteenth-century transport timetable. Journal of Design History 22, 2 (2009), 91–113.

3. Horan, R. The neuropsychological connection between creativity and meditation. Creativity Research Journal 21, 2/3 (2009), 199–222.

4. Lovett et al. The calendar as a sensor: Analysis and improvement using data fusion with social networks and location. In Proc. of the 12th ACM International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (Copenhagen, Denmark, Sep. 26-29) ACM, New York, 2010, 3–12.

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