Fast forward

XI.6 November + December 2004
Page: 16
Digital Citation

It’s about time

Aaron Marcus

back to top 

Einstein is famous for, among other things, making time a dimension like spatial dimensions and for introducing the relativity of time [29]. Recent studies of string theory and "theories of everything" [9] even make time merely one of ten dimensions. Piaget wrote The Child's Conception of Time, in which he described our human acquisition of a sense of time passing, history, and future orientation [25]. Some say that one of our distinctly human traits is to have a sense of not only the past but the future as well. Modern technology, that is, our tools and media of communication, through which we interact and communicate via user interfaces, in part generating our user experience, affects our notions of time in many, and in some cases, profound ways. Consider some of these phenomena and trends:

  • Media, channels, and products/services make it possible to capture and experience the past "directly" with significant "you are here" qualities. Music, film, theatre, video, newspapers, radio shows, and other events of past decades (in so far as they have been recorded with "high fidelity" media since the middle of the 19th century), enable us to step back in time and experience what our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents saw for their first time...or for that matter, listen to and see our ancestors talking to us. Let's not forget that the works of great past artists like Michelangelo or Poussin created sculpture, painting, tapestries, prints, and book illustrations that seemed vivid, "high fidelity" captures of past times.
  • Products like TiVo for television and TiVo-like products for radio enable users to experience past dynamic entertainment and educational media whenever they wish. Because of these products, as well as the electric light, 24-hour stores, and hothouse-grown foods, our activities, including sleep, meals, communication, learning, entertainment, and travel are no longer bound to a particular time. What we do and when we do it may be more of job-related or community-culture-related phenomena.
  • Animation, video editing, and other presentation-software applications enable general users, not only professionals, to produce, design, and edit time-based storytelling. Just as previous generations did not know the word "font" before it became ubiquitous with desktop computers, today's users are discovering concepts previously known only to professional producers: Storyboards, scripts, timelines, etc., are rapidly becoming household terms. Users can record, back up, pause, play, and enhance the presentations at will with standardized or custom transitions, annotation, and other multi-media effects.
  • Time management applications enable users to schedule events into the foreseeable future, as well as review diaries of the past with greater thoroughness and complexity than ever before. Not only can we schedule for ourselves a business meeting or a class, but we may be able in that process to automatically share that information with others, organize the availability of related resources (food, media, rooms, etc.), and shift communication networks to point to us or leave us alone and take a message.
  • Users can sort, select, annotate, and retrieve collections of images and sound according to time stamp, subject matter/genre, geography, and other attributes. Making the annotations, storing them, cleaning up the images/sounds and metadata, and retrieving them can swamp our own time if we are not careful about what kind of library we are building and how we are constructing it for future maintenance and large-scale contents.
  • The Internet, and specifically the Web, makes it easier than ever to create and distribute life-time information about one's self and one's family. Web-based family and event albums, blogs, wikis, and other collecting points continue to increase. Eventually, "everything" may be recorded, even the grams of carbohydrates or sugar in the cookie I just sneaked into my tummy. What will we do with all of that data?
  • Data visualization applications enable users to model the past, present, or future, and to display the data through increasingly complex or novel means, from picturesque or pictographic to very abstract. Among others, Marc Davis while at MIT proposed Media Streams to help envision the metadata that accompany time-based story telling [6].
  • Because of multimedia telecommunication, people have the opportunity—and sometimes the necessity—to live in multiple time frames: religious vs. secular frameworks, constant awareness and semi-participation in multiple world time zones (like the workers who must be cognizant of the life patterns of clients or customers in far-removed geographical locations), past memories vs. present circumstances vs. future anticipations. Bear in mind: Time zones, which we take for granted today, did not exist until the late 19th century, when they were made official worldwide in order to lessen the chaos and danger inherent in individual municipalities declaring whatever solar time suited their needs [3]. National railway systems required more serious, standardized attitudes towards time for railway timetables.
  • Asynchronous and synchronous communication compete in the world market for precedence via cost-effective technology. In the past, citizens lived within real-time shouting distance, or fires from hillside to hillside announced the new moon for official holy-day time keeping. Now communication takes place "outside of real-time," and messages catch up with the receiver. In the meantime, the facts may have changed. In some professions, like emergency-response systems, one needs to give special attention to when the communication originated. Was it ten seconds ago, or ten hours ago?
  • Despite time- and labor-saving devices and software applications, many industrial workers (especially those in the service industry) feel increasingly stressed by having too little time (and in some cases too little expertise and experience) in which to accomplish tasks, at best completing them "just-in-time" and with less and less care given to quality—perhaps because of speeded-up telecommunications, editable documents, and industry downsizing. Books, magazines, training courses, and Web sites all offer advice on how to get more done in less time [18]. Numerous articles cite the increasing amounts of time required to edit and act upon the mountain of email that arrives daily.

back to top  Some Issues

As users explore and take advantage of application and media/content, user interfaces enable users to relate to time phenomena in more complex and innovative ways. Along with the added capabilities, some issues arise that the CHI community may want to explore further; and some of this research is already underway:

  • Can operating systems or suites of applications take advantage of known patterns of circadian rhythms to encourage appropriate use of applications at peak performance times and to discourage use at inappropriate times? For example, applications used by teenagers might facilitate enhanced late-night performance, or add cautions for exhausted students, parents, or seniors preparing last-minute word-processed documents. Just as vehicle systems might lock out drivers with too much alcohol on their breath, so might future systems gauge the best times of day to undertake certain projects and manage the user's schedule to make sure that they do their most important tasks at the best times for their psychosomatic profiles.
  • How can/should user interfaces account for cultural variations in understanding/ using time?
      Cultural Analysts such as Hofstede, Trompenaars and Hall have called attention to those people who are polychromic (i.e., doing many things at once) vs. monochronic (doing things one at a time and sequentially), to those who view time as a line vs. those who see it as a circle or cycle [12], [31], [11]. Gell, in his Anthropology of Time, cites Gurvich's eight types of time based on different "rhythms, expansions, contractions, and irregular pulsations...generated by the patterns of events occurring in time..." [8], [10]. He describes these as Newtonian or Absolute Time "bent out of shape" by local sociological factors:
    1. Enduring time of slowed duration (slowed-down time).
    2. Deceptive time (slowed time with irregular and unexpected speeded-up stretches).
    3. Erratic time (slowed-down and speeded-up by turns, neither predominating, without predictable rhythms).
    4. Cyclic time (Gurvich equates cyclical time with `motionless' [or] `static' time.)
    5. Retarded time (in which a given moment T1 in retarded time equals a later moment. T1+n in non-retarded time).
    6. Time in advance (the inverse of retarded time, in which T1 in [time-in-advance] equals T1-n in non-advanced time.
    7. Alternating time (time alternating between being retarded and in advance).
    8. Explosive time (time very much advanced and also speeded-up).[8]
      Gurvich asserts that any given sociological milieu, like modern-mass society, peasant milieus, or classical 19th-century bourgeois society will be characterized by one or more of these time-types.
  • What are the objectives of a "timepiece" that we strap on our wrists or carry on our belt or in our pockets? What are the design criteria? What are the likely contents? In the past, a watch was just a watch. It didn't watch us or watch out for us. We watched it. Now the tables are turned. More and more functions can be added to our universal timepiece, which make it a likely first-generation ubiquitous, pervasive, wearable, computing system. What should it do? What should it not do? What should we do? What should we not have to do? Conferences on ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, wearable computing, and wrist-top devices are beginning to sort out how we might manage our time, or be managed by it. With enough careful consideration by CHI community professionals, time and our time-piece will remain friendly, helpful, dependable companions, not tyrannical busybodies.
  • How can we enable more professionals and the general public to become active-time designers/editors of media and activities rather than passive consumers? Time-based data, while sometimes hard to find and retrieve, makes it possible to visualize more effectively "cognitive landscapes" and to comprehend phenomena that would otherwise be hard to even perceive. To be able to visualize the growth of human population or the use of natural resources like oil make as dramatic an impression as overhead photographic flyovers of great cities and breathtaking spatial landscapes.

Until recently, most people did not have much opportunity to become active "time-composers" not just "space-composers." Professional musicians, dancers, animators, and other time-based composers all know how challenging it is to monitor and manage time-based phenomena. Most have invented special annotation/scripting languages, like those of music or dance (e.g., Labanotation). New metaphors, navigation schema, and interaction techniques will be necessary to enable the casual time navigator to find the right moment, contents, media, and conditions for display.

  • A related challenge is how to use time-stamped (and geo-stamped) media to manage more easily our communication media. Much of what we ourselves do can be and will be time-stamped, in addition to metadata that mark its position in physical space and any number of conceptual (semantic) spaces. How can these items be semi-automatically related so that we don't inherit the awesome burden of "accounting" our time, linking it appropriately, so that, for example, messages to us can be routed to the right place depending on our time schedule. Few of us would wish to become "time-slaves" for temporal bean-counting.

back to top  Time and the CHI Community

This introduction to time is understandably brief. Perhaps there will arise special-interest groups or birds-of-a-feather gatherings at future CHI conferences, and sibling conferences, that will focus on time-keeping/marking/annotating, temporal metaphors, temporal mental models and navigation, temporal visualization/sonification, and cross-cultural studies of time in relation to human-computer interaction and communication. If such groups form, they will find a worldwide set of organizations ready to collaborate and/or assist them in their activities, including the Centre for Time, the Institute of Time, and the International Institute for the Study of Time (see URLs in the bibliography), the last taking a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural approach to the topic and founded in 1966 by one of the best-known students of time, J. T. Fraser [7].

In closing, I am reminded of a former design student about 22 years ago who specialized in "time-time" works, not "space-time" artifacts. Steve Raven, who went by the nom-des-plumes of Ralston Purina (after the food products company), asserted that his designs had no particular visual or perceptual attributes. Instead, they were all about essentially "time-ish" or temporal experiences: surprise, memory, slowness, acceleration, speed, anticipation, cause-and-effect, etc. Our languages, and our tenses, are somewhat limited in relation to time, and this may limit our thinking about time. Already our everyday speech—even our written language—has lost many nuances of time, as in the disuse of subjunctive contrary-to-fact for rhetorical purposes, which expresses future conditions based on the nature of present circumstances (for example: "Were I to show/say X ...but I shan't...I could tell you quite a story").

As sophisticated as we are in measuring the smallest duration of time, and in theories of the beginning and nature of time, I think we are just entering an accelerated phase in our software applications, and their user interfaces, that will enable us to visualize and manage time in ways undreamed of in earlier eras. Rising to the challenge will demand of us more careful management of one of our most precious, and ultimately limited, resources, the roughly 2.5 billion seconds allotted to each of us.

back to top  References


1. Arguelles, J. (1987). The mayan factor. Santa Fe: Bear and Company.

2. Aveni, A. (2002). Empires of time: Calendars, clocks, and cultures. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

3. Bartky, I. R., & Harrison, E. (1979). Standard and daylight saving time. Scientific American, Vol. 240, pp. 46-53 (May 1979).

4. Bender, J., & Wellbery, D.E. (1991). Chronotypes: The construction of time. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

5. Brooks, F. P., Jr. (1975). The mythical man-month. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

6. Davis, M. (2004). Mobile media metadata: Metadata creation system for mobile images. Proceedings of 12th Annual ACM International Conference on Multimedia, 10-16, New York: ACM Press.

7. Fraser, J. (1987). Time the familiar stranger. Redmond, WA: University of Massachusetts Press.

8. Gell, A. (2001). The anthropology of time. Oxford: Berg.

9. Greene, B. (2003). The elegant universe: Superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory. (Rev. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

10. Gurvich, G. (1961). The spectrum of social time. Dordrecht: Reidel.

11. Hall, E. (1969). The hidden dimension. New York: Doubleday and Company.

12. Hofstede, G. (1997). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind, intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival. New York: McGraw-Hill.

13. Huff, S. (1984). The mayan calendar made easy. Privately published by S. Huff, 10 Suncrest Drive, Safety Harbor, FL 33572.

14. Hughes, D., & Trautmann, T.R. (1995). Time. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

15. Johnson, C. (1964). Clocks and watches. New York: Odyssey Press.

16. Kubler, G. (1962). The shape of time. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

17. Luce, G. (1971). Body time: Physiological rhythms and social stress. New York: Pantheon Books.

18. Mackenzie, A.R. (1972). The time trap. New York: McGraw-Hill.

19. McCay, J. (1959). The management of time. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

20. Murayama, Y. et al. (2001, January). Visualization of time in a message board system on WWW for on-door communication. Proceedings of the 34th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-34) Vol. 1, (pp.1036).

21. Judah L. Magnes Museum. (2000). Telling time: To everything there is a season [Brochure]. Berkeley, CA: Judah L. Magnes Museum.

22. O'Neil, B., & Phillips, R. (1975). Biorhythms. Pasadena, CA: Ward Ritchie Press.

23. Ornstein, R. (1969). On the experience of time. New York: Penguin Books.

24. Perkins, M. (2001). The reform of time. London: Pluto Press.

25. Piaget, J. (1969). The child's conception of time. New York: Ballantine Books.

26. Reynolds, H., & Tramel, M. (1979). Executive time management. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

27. Rennie, J. (Ed.). (2004, September). Beyond Einstein [Special Issue]. Scientific American, 291(3).

28. Rennie, J. (Ed.). (2002, September). A Matter of Time [Special Issue]. Scientific American, 287(3).

29. Stix, G. (2004, September). The patent clerk's legacy: Beyond Einstein [Special Issue]. Scientific American, 291(3) pp. 44-49.

30. Thommen, G. (1973). Is this your day? New York: Avon Books.

31. Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998). Riding the waves of culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

32. Tunnicliffe, K.C. (1979). Aztec astrology. Romford, Essex: LN Fowler & Co., Ltd.

33. Wilson, C. (1980). The book of time. North Pomfret, VT: Westbridge Books.

bullet.gif URLS

The following URLs and email contacts, among others, are relevant to this topic:

American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Center for Cross-Cultural Design:

Centre for Time, Philosophy Department, University of Sydney:

History of Time Zones:

Institute of Time, Moscow State University:

Intermundo cross-cultural network:

International Institute for the Study of Time:

Labanotation, a notation system for body movement:

Philosophy of time, including extensive bibliography:

Time-visualization categories:

back to top  Author

Aaron Marcus, President
Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc.
1196 Euclid Avenue, Suite 1F
Berkeley, California 94708, USA
Fax: 510-527-1994

back to top 

©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/1100  $5.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2004 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found