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LE SUJET DIGITAL
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Media In and Out of Time: Multi-Temporality and the Technical Conditions of Contemporaneity
By Timothy Scott Barker

Lecturer in Digital Media, University of Glasgow, School of Culture and Creative Arts

Recent publications

BARKER, Tim, Time and the Digital: Connecting Technology, Aesthetics and a Process Philosophy of Time, Hanover, Dartmouth College Press, 2012.

BARKER, Tim, « Re-composing the Digital Present », in Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture, n°1, 2011, pp. 88-104.

BARKER, Tim, « Experiments with Time: the Technical Image in Media Art and the Digital Humanities », Visual Communication, 15, 2016, ISSN 1470-3572.

 

About the author

Tim Barker is a Lecturer in Digital Media in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow. He is the author of Time and the Digital, a text which uses Deleuze, Whitehead and Serres to introduce the topic of multi-temporal media and develop a process oriented philosophy of time in digital culture. He has otherwise published widely on the philosophy of time and media, new materialism in media theory, questions of technology and creativity and histories of ‘experimental’ art and cinema.

 

Abstract

Since the earliest developments in electronic media a new form of temporal experience has come into view. It was discovered that time itself was able to be processed, delayed and stored. This paper looks to the history of media, including chronophotography, televisions and computers, that have fragmented the world in order to measure and store time. It asks, what are the new forms of micro-temporalities that these media produce? And what can the analysis of the technical qualities of time media tell us about what it means to be con-temporary?

 

Key words
Digital temporality; technical media studies; philosophies of contemporaneity; media philosophy; analytical media.

 

(Prior to this paper Richard Serra’s Boomerang (1974) was screened). The video can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8z32JTnRrHc

 

Sommaire de l'article

On both the micro scale of signal processing and the macro scale of human experience, the concept of time has become one of the central topics around which critical discussions of media and technology revolve. Social geographers such as David Harvey (1990) have given us a picture of an increasingly shrinking globe, where developments such as the horse and cart, the jet engine, the telephone and new communications technology have resulted in drastically new experiences of time. James Carey (1992) has similarly explored how the medium of the telegraph reformulated temporalities in social, political and economic life and, before this, as most people here probably know, Harold Adams Innis (1950) explained the development of civilisations based on their use of either time-biased or space-biased media. Civilisations that used media that are durable to time, such as parchment, clay, or stone tended to develop different characteristics to those that used ephemeral space-biased media such as the papyrus, paper, radio or television (Innis 1950/2007: 27). In short, the hardware of media was seen by Innis, Carey and Harvey to produce temporalities and rhythms of life that in turn produced cultural phenomena. 

The question I’m interested in asking, and that I think is also being asked at this conference, is: What then are the new conditions for the mediated production of temporality in culture? And what are the effects of this time media on the conditions of contemporaneity? (or the con-temporary – which we might begin to think of as a particular case of being-with the temporary) To answer these questions there has been a boom in theories of memory and media, focussed largely on the ways in which media content mobilise cultural memory (Guarde-Hansen, Hoskins and Reading, 2009). Techno-cultural theorists like Adrian Mackenzie (2002) have told us about the speeding up of machinic, non-human, temporality, splitting from our daily ‘lived’ time. And there is beginning to be interesting things said about the algorithmic structuring of the temporality and rhythms of data by people like Wolfgang Ernst, Tarlton Gillespie and Shintaro Miyazaki, whilst others, such as David Berry, have argued that digital media rehearse a kind of trance on users that orients them out of time, towards the future rather than the past or present.

As Mark Hansen and WJT Mitchell tell us: « Simply put, the time of the world – and specifically of computational objects and processes – has become fundamentally disjoined from the time of experience, with the result that we find ourselves facing a new, structurally unprecedented form of alienation »  (Hansen and Mitchell, 2010: 110). In this talk I would first like to explore what is offered by an analysis of the technical workings of time media – and how this has been represented by a tradition of what is commonly called German media science, focusing particularly on the work of Friedrich Kittler and Vilém Flusser. This treatment of time media then leads into an exploration of the way the hardware of contemporary media culture mobilises experiences of what in my book I refer to as multi-temporality: a phenomenological experience of being in multiple times: simultaneously in and out of time, in the present but also in the past and future.

At stake in this paper is the possibility of thinking of the con-temporary and just what this means, beyond a simple up-to-datedness. As is revealed in its etymology – to be contemporary is to be in a relationship with time – it is a particular way of being in, or with, or even out of time. Con comes from the Latin for being with and temporary from the Latin word tempus, for time. As a starting point to thinking about media and contemporaneity, we might begin by saying that media technologies put their users in contact with the events of the world, allowing them to engage with events across the globe, getting closer to ‘real time’ than ever before. But at the same time, they draw people into their own technicity, creating new temporalities, hierarchies and protocols within which these events play out. This is what I want to explore in this talk – the media that put us in contact with time, but then draw us out of this time into other technically produced times.

Mostly when we think about time and media we are subsumed by a discourse about historiography – time, in other words, on the macro scale. The art historian Terry Smith and also Boris Groys have discussed this. In the Clark Workshop on Contemporary Art in 2009 Smith said:

"I think we’re living in a condition today rather than a historical era or epoch. The condition of contemporaneity is what I call it. If it is an age, it is the Age of Aftermath, one littered with pasts that keep on returning, with empires that are falling as they arise […]. This is not to suggest that history has somehow ended. History is going backwards for some people, it’s going forward for other people, and history is irrelevant to still other groups of people." (Smith, 2011)

Or as Boris Groys puts it, we are coming to see history as a series of processional presences, as a string of individual moments, each one a present. For the moderns there were two perspectives on time – either the past was valued above all, or for utopians it was the future that was valued – the present was just an obstacle to this – but no longer. Groys says:

"There is no acceptance of the likelihood of a common future, or of a shared past. Indeed, everyone invents their own history, and thus their individual future. Every author needs to be original. The present thus becomes the production site of historical narratives, more and more of them, overriding past, present, future distinctions […]. We are coming to see history as a series of processional presences, as a string of individual moments, each one a present." (Smith, 2011)

But this is not just an experience of history, over very long time scales. In fact it is supported by micro-processes happening on a technical level that are very fast and very short in scale. A computer works by processing electronic signal. Signal moves through a circuit and is very slightly delayed in an electronic field. A transistor constantly delays the flow of electrons – this is the basis for how the computer works and something that all computer engineers know. Circuits, the things that provide a model for computation, are based on the potential to delay and briefly archive the present. To rephrase Groys - The computer sees history as a series of processional presences, as a string of individual moments, each one a present.

To understand this more vividly, we might look at two related art works that act as an upscaling of this everyday experience of time – as a delaying, segmenting and making past of the present. In Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s Moveable Type (2007) 560 small vacuum-fluorescent tubes are assembled in two linear displays in the lobby of the New York Times. The work gathers live data feeds from the upstairs offices, along with visitor comments taken from the Times’ website and historical data drawn from their 150 year archive and uses natural language processing routines to combine these into linguistic patterns. Hansen and Rubin’s installation, designed to provide a portrait of the history of the company and its daily news gathering and generating routines, re-assembles and dramatises archival and ‘real-time’ data based on a set of technical protocols. It is a way of making public the socially composed memory of an institution, letting a computer program mediate the archive and re-present it in meaningful and often poetic combinations. 

Moveable Type is based on Hansen and Rubin’s previous work Listening Post (2002), an experimental investigation into the ‘chatter’ of early 2000s internet culture. Listening Post, now on permanent exhibition at the London Science Centre, uses 110 similar small vacuum-fluorescent tubes to display text, scraped in real time from open access social media sites and vocalised by a computer synthesised voice. Again, the use of natural language processing routines allows Listening Post to parse this ‘real-time’ data and trigger it based on linguistic patterns (Hansen and Rubin, 2002). The first movement invokes sentences that begin with the words ‘I am...’, giving audiences the opportunity to listen to pieces of online communication, which are removed from their usual context and put in new relations with other entries. Other movements truncate the text feeds, reducing them to single words or short phrases that overlap one another and seem to come too quickly to be understood. In both installations words and sentences cascade over the screens in organised and complex patterns and in both there is a layering and overlapping of text and voice. Institution, archive, technology and individual are heard at once. The works are, as Lucy Bullivant (2005: 91) points out, a visual and sonic response to the content, magnitude and immediacy of virtual communication.

The audio-visual images of Hansen and Rubin’s projects, as the effects of hardware and software processes, re-image networked relationships across different scales of time. Listening Post pulls together text feeds that discuss identity, whether this be social, sexual, political, age, class or national, and Movable Type puts organizational memory in contact with contemporary news gathering routines in order to generate a picture of the global and multi-temporal condition of networked communication, which ostensibly brings together events separated by distances of both space and time. Listening Post and Moveable Type through their content speak to the multi-temporal condition of communication on a conceptual level. They provide the condition for viewers to experience social media in a new way. But the technical processes that occur – here in an artwork but that can also be seen to operate in a much wider digital culture – also generate temporality at the level of both the hardware and the software of the technological image making system. These things – the processes that are not seen or heard, but provide the conditions for what is seen and heard, are experienced vicariously through the work. While we don’t sense them directly we experience their effects.

In both works the computer treats the text feeds as strings, an array of bits of information that are organised by mathematical rules. The printed word that once produced meaning in linear time, as it linked up with other words, phrases and sentences immediately before and after, is now made to operate in a multi-temporal structure based on relationships between data generated by algorithms – or what Miyazaki calls algo-rhythms. Real world events are feed into the computer as signal, cut up, delayed and re-arranged. It is at this level that the technical architecture of artworks – the things that make them work – also provides a mode of experimenting with and experiencing time. It is this quality of the computer, which amounts to a continual archiving and making past of the rhythms of ‘real time’, that Hansen and Rubin experimentally demonstrate in Moveable Type and Listening Post. The installations not only produce new senses of space through the use of images and sounds, but, perhaps more interestingly, use the computer to produce new senses of temporalities and the rhythms of data.

An algorithm is developed for both Listening Post and Moveable Type that initiates a series of computational processes and which result in patterns of words being ‘recognised’ and triggered by the machine. These electronic processes involve various levels of delay, as signal is taken from the internet, queued, then stored in the computer’s memory to be triggered as green text on one of the LED screens. It is seemingly true that the works bring archival data into contact with the present (Eleey, 2003). But they do so by subjecting the present to multiple layers of delay. The present – the keys typed by New York Times employees and social media users alike – is continually made past, continually archived, as it is always delayed in the circuits of Hansen and Rubin’s computational machines. Understood this way, through what Ernst (2013) calls ‘time-critical’ media, it is not that the past is made present. Instead the present is continuously and rapidly made past by the computer. The present is continually delayed, given the same material existence as the past, so that it can become signal for the computer that is indistinguishable from the signal that it receives from the archived data. Hansen and Rubin’s experiment, by scaling-up the computational ordering of data also scale-up the production of time in contemporary culture; at the centre of the work is the delayed and relational organisation of time in contemporary media culture. The artists have intervened in the system of computer culture, amplifying one of its features, in such a way that allows viewers to experience new elements of the operation of the system.

By looking at these works in terms of the way they structure time, I’m really interested in the way technologies processes signal, measure time and produce temporalities. In this sense my work is inspired by a tradition of so called German media theory – I didn’t address this head on in my book, but have since been in discussions with Wolfgang Ernst who has shown me how what I’m doing really is very close to what he is doing and the tradition of technical media studies. Because this tradition is framing a great deal of my recent thought on digital temporalities, and time media in general, I now want to introduce some of the central concepts and elements of my ‘tool kit’ that come from this tradition of German media studies, specifically from the work of Kittler and Flusser on media and temporality.

A tradition of what is now known as German media science (although the practitioners are not always German) have offered perspectives grounded in the analysis of hardware as a means to conceive the relationship between media and time. Kittler, inspired by Michel Foucault’s archaeological approach to knowledge, argued that the immense shifts between the discourse networks of 1800 and the discourse networks of 1900 were due to changing technical parameters, seen particularly in the invention of the gramophone, film and the typewriter, which provided new ways to record, analyse and archive the time based events of the world (Hansen and Mitchel, 2010: 106). Kittler and his use of Foucault has for many set the foundations for a turn toward media archaeology, a field of study where media technologies are ‘excavated’ to grapple with their influence on culture. Sometimes this involves understanding new media based on the artefacts and events dredged from the leftovers of media histories. For others this involves what Ernst calls an ‘epistemologically reverse engineering’ of media (Ernst, 2013: 55) in order to think philosophically about the components of the hardware of communication and how these objects become inscribed on cultural phenomena.

The mode of thinking through technics embodied in this later form of media archaeology – what Ernst (2013: 25) refers to as the ‘cold gaze’ of media archaeology – situates the tradition of German media theory within the realm of the techno-mathematical, rather than the realm of cultural studies (This approach has been described by some as hardware fetishism). But, it must be said, that the ‘cold gaze’ with which signal processing, data storage and transmission is explored, at least the way I want to try and explore it, is driven by a desire to uncover the feedback loops between media and human experience. Throughout Gramophone, Film, Typewriter Kittler emphasises the relationships between human perception and media. His point is that technical media operate before the senses. To understand experience phenomenologically we must first conduct an analysis of the technology that provides a support for this experience. Kittler gives us a description of listening to Pink Floyd: 

"The ‘sound of music in my ear’ can exist only once mouthpieces and microphones are capable of recording any whisper. As if there were no distance between the recorded voice and listening ears, as if voices travelled along the transmitting bones of acoustic self-perception directly from the mouth into the ear’s labyrinth, hallucinations become real" (Kittler 1986/1999: 37)

There’s an obvious connection I’m trying to make here between Kittler’s headphones and those worn by Nancy Holt in Serra’s video. So material technical capabilities provides the condition for experience that was otherwise unobtainable, even in the best concert halls….can we extend this to think about our experiences of time when put in contact with media technology?

Kittler’s exploration of the senses and media is continued in Optical Media, where he asserts, « we knew nothing about our senses until media provided models and metaphors » (Kittler 2002/2010: 34). Two distant but interlinked examples demonstrate his point. Kittler tells us that amid the Ancient Greek philosophers attempt to define the soul, the tabula rasa upon which Plato put the Socratic dialogues into writing offered a metaphor (Kittler 2002/2010: 34). Memory and perception after Plato were akin to impressions on a wax tablet. A shift occurred to this concept immediately after the development of film – and this was a time based shift – when physicians theorised that upon falling or drowning a rapid time-lapse film of an entire life is projected in the mind’s eye. « In 1900 the soul stopped being a memory in the form of wax slates or books, as Plato describes it; rather, it was technically advanced and transformed into a motion picture » (Kittler 2002/2010: 34). Like the headphones and acoustic recording technologies that articulated recorded voices and neuro-psychology, media produced a phenomenological, temporal world.

Like Kittler, Flusser, the prolific Czech media philosopher, offers a number of examples where the temporality of media restructures the flows of everyday life. Towards a Philosophy of Photography, one of Flusser’s defining works, is based on the claim that:

"Two fundamental turning points can be observed in human culture since its inception. The first, around the middle of the second millennium BC, can be summed up under the heading ‘the invention of linear writing’; the second, the one we are currently experiencing, could be called ‘the invention of technical images." (Flusser, 1983/2012: 7)

Prior to the mechanised and automatic imaging of photography the dominant cultural form was the alphabet and the printed word, which had associated with it the production of linear history. Language turned the events of the world into scenarios, passed on through stories either verbally or on the page, to be read from left to right, front to back, beginning to end. Photography and the technical image in general mark a break from this tradition as they automatically organise the world into particles that can be re-organised based on programmed rules. The events of the world were once transformed into literary scenarios, now, after the invention of the technical image, signal is transduced into particles. According to Flusser, the birth of the camera represented a shift in media that introduced a mode of thinking with ‘techno-logically’ produced images. Events were once organised based on the linearity associated with the written word. But after photography, events were organised based on the hardware (techno) and programming (logic) of apparatuses. Like with Kittler, this technical processing and storage of time had real effects.

Flusser was particularly pre-disposed to understand the way one makes sense of chaos via codes. Fleeing the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was exiled to Brazil. He entered a deep depression and began to understand how you make meaning of a world after you have been ripped out of your surroundings, with the blanket of habits and custom torn away from you. The things you rely on to form an identity are codes – rituals, routines, protocols, ways of doing things.  – Confronted with a chaotic world an apparatus codes the whirring particles of the world and puts it on surfaces – as an image. So we see this in Hansen and Rubin’s work – but we can also see this in a larger cultural trajectory of the fragmentation of the world into pixels. From chronophotography, through electromagnetic television that worked based on breaking the image into bands, to electric television that worked by segmenting the image into micro events – what we call pixels – digital sound recording that segments waves into samples and the computer that segments electrical signal into binary by delaying it for very short amounts of time in circuits. These things code signal by measuring it as small bits. The make it manageable, meaningful.

Analogue sound recording techniques are based on recording the frequency and amplitude of a continuous wave on a medium, storing time-based events as signal on a material substrate. The technical rendering of time however quickly shifted from recordings of continuous vibrations to the sampling of instants. If the gramophone via its recording of signal offered a new capacity to store real-time, film, in its technical functioning, offered the ability to represent movement by segmenting time. As we all know from Bergson – film at its birth was an analytical medium. Instead of processing signal by recording physical waves, the camera records the chemical effects of the wave at one instant and stores it on its negatives. Suspending human perception for a moment, the primary function of cinematography as a recording and storage medium was to segment movements in time so that they could be studied. In the chronophotography of Marey and Muybridge the camera was used as a measuring device to study movement. In these early experiments, which were among the foundations for the development of a cinematic art, movement and time are not presented by the apparatus of the cinema, but are instead hidden within it (Bergson, 1911/1986: 306). Following both Flusser’s and Bergson’s analysis, the measuring device of the cinema, on a technical level, abstracted time from experience (of course on a synthetic level, i.e. Deleuze’s level, film represents a multi-directional flow of time – a lot has already been said about this in film philosophy….but I want to do something different and focus on media as analytical, as a device for measuring time and to uncover some of the underlying structures for temporal experience in the present).

To say that the recording of optical signal afforded by the technical architecture of film is quite different to that afforded by the technical architecture of recorded sound is, of course, to state the obvious. But identifying this difference in signal processing is key, from a media philosophy perspective, in identifying technical structures for the splitting of time. The phonograph gave us a flow, whereas experimental media such as the zoetrope, the optical toys of the 18th century and eventually the motion-picture camera, offered isolated spatialized frames of movement. Signal is represented by analogue sound recording media as variations in amplitude and frequency. In contrast, film reproduces signal as samples of events in distinct frames – again this is Bergson’s argument and he sees this being mirrored in the intellect – in the way people think about time. At this point the world of events that flow in a line becomes transduced into a world of instants that can be re-arranged by technical apparatuses.

Siegfried Zielinski, another major figure in German media science, tells us that photography froze time into a still, to which the invention of the cinema added the illusion of movement; the telegraph shrank the time needed for information to traverse distances to which the telephone introduced real-time exchanges of sound; the gramophone then enabled the storage and transmission of sound through time, as well as space. Time is able to be recorded, stored and transmitted by these media inventions. The television then combined all these concepts in a new medium (Zielinski 2002/2008: 31). Zielinski tells us that the cathode ray tube transforms images into dots on lines. These pixels, as they are components of the temporally calculable moving image, are according to Zielinski, microelements of time. The time-based mediality of television, treating time as micro-events to be rearranged and replaced, is then refined further by the introduction of the computer, which treats the events of the world as signal to be arranged into strings of information. This is not just the recording, transmission and storage of time – but the multiplication, or thickening of temporal experience. 

Like Zielinski, Flusser asks us to look to old television screens to see this new form of temporality. « When we get close to a screen we see points – pixels » (Flusser, 1985/2011: 34). These images are not in fact images at all, but rather the results of chemical or electronic processes. As the result of these technical processes, the image amounts to an arrangement of pixels, particles or micro-elements of time and it is through this process that images becomes, again according to Zielinski and Flusser, post-historical – having no time.

Flusser, who really is responsible for this post-history argument, states that « all events are nowadays aimed at television screens, the photograph, in order to be translated into a state of things. In this way, however, every action simultaneously loses its historical character and turns it into a magical ritual and an endlessly repeatable movement » (Flusser 1983/2012: 19-20). The television image, like the cultural history that it illustrates, is no longer able to be grasped as one stable ‘thing’ that possesses a singular movement. It is instead an arrangement of pixels, a mathematically programmed organization of the particles of the world, a loose conglomeration of micro-elements of time that are held together by programmed apparatuses. The image is both in and out of time, placing users and viewers closer to the world of events but at the same time drawing them into its own technicity, as the images becomes an endlessly repeatable moment.

It is the discovery of the multi-temporal – the existence of different types of time – that is at stake in the vastly different experiences of time produced by electronic media. In order to define the multi-temporal Michel Serres states:

"Consider a late-model car. It is disparate aggregate of scientific and technical solutions dating from different periods. One can date it component by component: this part was invented at the turn of the century, another ten years ago, and Carnot’s cycle is almost two hundred years old. Not to mention that the wheel dates back to Neolithic times. The ensemble is only contemporary by assemblage, by its design, its finish, sometimes only by the slickness of the advertising surrounding it" (Serres 1990/1995: 45).

In Serres' description of the late-model car we see an image of presentness constituted by a drawing together, or an assemblage of, what he terms, the pleats of time. In essence this is a multi-temporal assemblage, taking form in the present – taking form like pixels on a TV screen. The object of the late-model car emerges from an aggregate of solutions from different periods in history. The aggregate of solutions, gathered together as though the pleats of a curtain, provides the condition from which the present object – and the present moment in general – becomes. What is important here is not the material object of the late-model car but rather the processes that it embodies, and the way that the object draws together once disparate moment in time into a field of multi-temporality.

I would like to end by thinking about the multi-temporality built into computers – particular how they extend into a future and reframe a past in terms of the present. The archiving of the past is fairly obvious. Based on predefined rules a computer organises data in sets, bound together in relational fields. Any excavation of this archive is based on computer programming. The computer presents a time that is made up of multiple temporalities at every moment. Nowhere is it clearer than in the analysis of the hardware of signal processing that the present moment is constituted by the computer as signal is delayed in order to be processed. Whenever a user interacts with digital media in the present they are always already interacting with a reproduction of past micro events. Likewise, it becomes clear that the future always exists immanent to the present, as a product of the programming, limitations and protocols imposed by technical systems.

The computer also extends into the future – by coding potentiality. We commonly conceive of ourselves as related to past and future events by memory or by some abstract imagination, not by a direct observation of ontology. But this approach obscures temporalization and tends to promote an idea of the eternal present, existing without a past or future. Instead of this, as is made clear through the analysis of the processing of signal – a temporal reality exists that sees a past and future transpiring within every present moment. Whitehead states «  each moment of experience confesses itself to being a transition between two worlds, the immediate past and the immediate future  » (Whitehead 1933: 191). This is the essence of a multi-temporal present – which I am arguing as the condition that marks contemporaneity – it is an experience of the present as a complex of pasts, present and futures. These are, like in Serres’ car, drawn together in the present.

The crux of Terry Smith’s argument - mentioned earlier, and someone who has inspired my own thinking about contemporaneity a great deal – is that the condition of contemporaneity is marked by a time of the aftermath of major events such as September 11. In the wake of these events the condition of living in a repeatable present moment can be sensed most acutely. At these moments one event, constantly repeated, stands in for larger historical stories. Contemporary culture in the west no longer lives within history but in the aftermath of these repeatable large-scale events. My argument is that the condition of the aftermath is also produced by very small and extremely fast events, such as the delay of signal in computers, orienting users to a present that is constituted by a temporary archiving and repetition of the past. We live in the aftermath of large scale historical event, but we also live in the aftermath of micro-processes – like Nancy Holt in Serra’s video screened at the beginning of the talk – that delay the present at micro-temporal scales.

So, it is not, as Flusser seems to suggest that we have vanished into an eternal present, with no past or future at all. It is instead that the past and future are now wrapped up so completely by micro-temporal processes, as illustrated by Wolfgang Ernst’s work, that always orient human users in a moment just after the event – in the aftermath. We always sense signal just after it has been processed by machines. Just after it has entered into a field of multi-temporality. Not only do we populate a time of the aftermath in terms of macro events like September 11 and other more recent disasters. We also inhabit the time of the aftermath in terms of micro-processes.

 

References

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FLUSSER, Vilém, «  The Gesture of Photographing  » (trans. Nancy Ann Roth), Journal of Visual Culture, n°10 (3), 2011, p. 279-293.

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