random thoughts

The Ending of Rigid Time

A section of the  Prague astronomical clock .

A section of the Prague astronomical clock.

The history of humanity is the history of tracking and managing information. Need to grow enough wheat or rice to feed your village? Then you must track the seasons to determine the best times to plant your seeds. Want to remember society's history so you don’t continually repeat it, or determine how many of your kingdom’s subjects pay their taxes? Then you’ll need systems of writing and counting.

And central among humanity’s informational tools is the measurement of time.

Exactly how humanity began tracking time is lost in the unrecorded millennia of human prehistory. But it’s safe to assume that before recorded history began our ancestors tracked time. For example, there's ample archaeological evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers tracked the seasons. In addition, sites like Stonehenge take account of celestial time indicators such as the solstices. Our ancestors obviously knew how to track time well before recorded history began.

But as more complex civilizations developed so too developed the need for specific methods of measuring time for religious ceremonies, trade, and military and administrative duties. So at some point in our history humans began to track the individual parts of each day.

One way we did this was by measuring the passage of time using recurring natural phenomenon. The passage of the sun through the sky. The dripping of water through a small hole. The resulting devices — shadow clocks, sundials, water clocks, hourglasses — flourished for centuries. Now we track time with technologies up to and including atomic clocks, which measure the frequency with which electrons move from one energy level to another. With atomic clocks we have reached the point where we track time with far more precision than humans can notice with our physical senses.

But precision comes at a price: the chaining of a sizable portion of humanity to an extremely rigid form of time. You must be at school at this exact time. You must begin and end work at other exact times. You must never be late because that is disrespectful to our notions of time management.

Taken to the extreme this sense of absolute time management results in the dystopian world of Harlan Ellison’s classic science fiction story "‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” where everyone must obey a rigid time schedule throughout their lives or suffer the consequences.

Thanks to technology, I suspect Ellison’s time-keeping nightmare won’t come true. Instead, it’s possible we’re about to enter a period which we might well call the ending of rigid time.

But whether this will be good or bad has yet to be determined.

To understand the pending change in how humanity uses time, look in your pocket. Is a smartphone hiding there? If so you have access to systems which can chart and manage every aspect of your life — the digital equivalent of a personal assistant who ensures you never miss an appointment or your kid’s birthday.

And we’re merely at the beginning of such interconnected personal scheduling. In the near future this type of technology will no doubt evolve until some aspect of wearable or implantable tech allows your personal assistant to whisper in your ear or access your mind during every moment of your life. Spent a few minutes setting up your life preferences and you won’t need to worry about when to work or go to school or study or exercise or have a beer with friends.

In such an integrated scheduling system, why would the average human need to even pay attention to time? After all, your personal assistant will be able to connect with an entire world of other people’s lives and schedules. Tell your assistant to schedule a doctor’s visit and the assistant will contact the doctor’s office, determine when you’re available, schedule the appointment, and even tell you when to leave your home and stick out your tongue.

Instead of people being forced to track time so they can schedule their lives, their personal assistants will track time for them. In such a world people will more likely focus on living in the present than caring what the time of day might be. And time keeping itself may even be seen as antiquated. After all, your assistant will be there to worry about time, and the future, for you.

Now obviously such a world would disturb many people, including myself. But imagine how our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have felt in modern New York City or Beijing, where continually tracking the minutes and hours of each day determines whether you can keep a job and support yourself and your family. They'd have been appalled at such a life.

There might be some good in achieving a time-free future, at least for people like myself with a horrible sense of time. I often find the hours and minutes of each day slipping away from me. I’ll be focused on my writing or staring at a beautiful sunset and suddenly realize I forgot to meet my friends at the neighborhood bar.

But I also fear such a time-free world. Who knows how humans will change if we no longer have to actively track time on a personal level. Will we still plan for the future? Will people descend into an eternal hedonistic present where all that matters is moving from one scheduled moment of excitement to the next?

Even more troubling, perhaps employers will require their workers to use specially-approved scheduling inputs. In this scary version of Ellison’s "Repent, Harlequin,” your employer will be assured that your life and happiness never interfere with work-related duties because they’ll schedule your life so that never happens.

One of the things which make us human is our species’ use of tools. Our tools both define and shape who we are. And few tools are as subtly powerful as how we track and measure time.

None of these speculations mean humans will ever stop tracking and measuring time. Of course we won’t. Scientific and technological systems will always require accurate time measurement. But I suspect that on a personal level, humans will one day give up watching the clock for an even more controlling form of life scheduling.

So forget repenting for the Ticktockman. Because in such a future humans will be so intermeshed with life scheduling that time itself might appear to disappear.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

What happens to storytelling when the audience knows everything?

phonecastle.jpg

The opening of the classic science fiction conspiracy show The X-Files posed an evocative statement: “The Truth Is Out There.” Well, the truth is still out there and, thanks to the internet and mobile technology, humanity is well on its way to having continual access to any truth we want.

These days anyone with a mobile phone or tablet carries vastly more computing power than all the computers on Apollo 11, which landed on the moon in 1969. Add in online access to the ever-growing libraries and archives of human experience and it’s possible for many people to instantly learn the answer to nearly any question they have.

And we’re merely at the beginning of continual access to human information and knowledge. Wearable tech and its promise to embed online access into clothing and eyeglasses and more, is already appearing. Body tech will follow shortly after.

We’re already seeing major changes in society from people having access to information through mobile devices. Paper maps and guides, which existed for thousands of years, are nearly extinct in some countries as people use their phones and GPS to navigate. Printed encyclopedias and dictionaries have also mostly disappeared, replaced by Wikipedia and other online resources. And social movements like the Arab Spring owed much of their power to the instantaneous sending of information between people by social media.

Those are merely the start of the changes we’ll see when every human has instant access to any information they desire. And one intriguing question I’ve been pondering is what this continual access to information will do to storytelling.

Here’s the issue: the vast majority of stories deal with an information gap between that story’s characters. This gap between what is known and not known by different characters helps create a story’s drama.

For example, in Romeo and Juliet a main character commits suicide because he believes his lover is dead. But what happens to that story when the characters can instantly find out they’re both alive?

Or what about Liam Neeson’s film Taken, where a father hunts for the people who kidnapped his daughter? What happens to that story when the father can instantly know the address where his daughter is being kept? Or his daughter can access an online database to learn of her kidnapper’s true nature when she first meets him?

And what about the eternal horror story where a group of kids visit an isolated house containing a monster or killer? What does that story turn into when the characters not only know the monster is present but download the monster's profile and stay in continual touch with each other instead of splitting up to be killed?

Those are only three examples of stories where having instant access to information could kill much of the story’s drama and plot. And this doesn’t take into account certain literary genres like mysteries, which could face extinction if people expect anyone to solve a crime after researching for a few seconds on their smartphone.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it’s an issue today’s authors and story creators must address. Otherwise their stories will no longer be believable. Audiences accept and go along with stories because of suspension of disbelief — the term refers to how people accept fantastical aspects of stories as long as the story has a semblance of truth. And in a world where many audiences already have instant access to all the information they desire, not giving characters the same access will cause that audience to doubt other aspects of the story.

Authors are already dealing with this issue in their fiction. I’ve talked to many writers over the last decade who bemoan what cell phones have forced them to do with their stories. If a character in a story gets lost or needs to call for help, an author has to set up exactly why that character doesn’t pull out their phone and use Google Maps or contact the police.

Ever wonder why so many films and books these days are set in areas with bad cell phone coverage? Mystery solved.

Much of human history revolved around a scarcity of human knowledge. Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a world of danger and strangeness, governed by scientific rules they didn’t understand. Even when civilizations began inventing written languages and record keeping, most people didn’t have access to that information. Instead, storytelling and oral traditions and religion and gossip and rumor were essential for the sharing of needed knowledge.

But things have changed significantly over the last few centuries as schooling and literacy expanded, and as the printing press and then radio and TV gave more and more people access to needed information. One way to look at human history is that greater and greater percentages of humanity are continually being given the tools to access the knowledge and information they desire.

And now we’re on the cusp of every human having access to all information all the time.

Despite all this, ready access to information and knowledge is unlikely to totally destroy stories because the biggest source of human drama in storytelling won’t disappear. For many years to come you still won’t know what the person next to you is thinking or planning to do. The individual worlds and thoughts which swirl in each and every human will still be mysterious realms. Great stories will continue to explore the drama and conflict arising from that.

And just because humans will have 24/7 access to all information, that doesn’t mean they’ll desire the correct information. Or understand the information. Or act on it properly. All of which provides even more fuel for great stories.

In many ways science fiction and fantasy stories are able to deal with this issue far better than other storytelling genres. After all, if you set your story in an epic fantasy world without cell phones, or in a future universe or time where information is severely controlled, audiences won’t expect your characters to have continual access to needed information. Basically, the SF/F genre has long used world building to address why characters can’t use magic or technology to access any information they might need.

I wish I knew exactly how our information revolution will eventually change stories. But that’s exactly the information I’m unable to access at this time.

The secret to life is don't be a jerk

I tweeted this yesterday because so many people are holding Dave Truesdale up as a martyr for free speech and censorship. As if everyone should hijack convention panels they're supposed to moderate and which hundreds of people had chosen to attend.

Other people are taking a slightly different approach, saying that they've seen much worse behavior than Truesdale's at conventions, behavior which didn't result in anyone being kicked out.

I disagree with both of these views.

There was no censorship of Truesdale. He's free to say what he wants on whatever subject he wants, as he is now doing at Tangent Online. He also could have asked Worldcon for a specific panel on the topic he addressed, or raised the topic in the short fiction panel without hijacking an entire discussion he was supposed to moderate. Truesdale did neither of these last two options. Instead of moderating the panel — ie, facilitating the discussion around a specific subject — he took over the panel and forced the other panelists and the audience to engage with his own beliefs.

As for saying that there's been worse behavior at conventions, that's a very wrong way to excuse bad behavior. No wrong behavior at conventions or other places should ever be tolerated merely because worse has been done in the past.

For those defending Truesdale's actions, I ask the following: How would you feel if the panelists and moderators at this year's World Fantasy Convention took over all the panels? If you showed up for a panel about your favorite author and instead learned the panelists were going to discuss a totally different subject?

Think this is a silly example? Well, there are already many complaints about the WFC panel line-up. There's even an alternate #guerrillaWFC list of panels online.

Would the people supporting Truesdale's actions be okay if all the panels at WFC were hijacked? Or if every panel at every convention was subject to extremely going off topic or being changed at the whim of the moderator and panelists?

I'm not advocating the hijacking of the WFC panels (and according to Sarah Pinsker, WFC may be addressing the legitimate concerns raised about their panel choices). But understand that if people support Truesdale's actions in this case, they're opening up many other cases they may not support.

The simple truth is that if Truesdale had raised his issues in the panel in a civil manner without hijacking the panel, people would have discussed them. But he didn't do this. He came prepared to derail the entire panel and force people to deal with him. He was a jerk and behaved like a jerk and people reacted accordingly.

Funny thing about life. If you're not a jerk people will discuss things with you even when they disagree with what you're saying.

Goodbye, Yahoo

We are gathered here today to bury Yahoo!, which now joins MySpace and AOL as examples of WWW pioneers which couldn't change as the world evolved around them. 

What can we say about Yahoo? In it's time, Yahoo was groundbreaking. Yahoo was the web portal every other portal wanted to be when it grew up. Yahoo was the hip kid everyone turned to for tips on the best the web had to offer. Remember when the Cool Site of the Day was actually cool? Well, back then Yahoo was cooler than that. Yahoo was the king of cool.

But cool is no longer cool. No one cool says cool anymore. Except for the people at Yahoo. Which is majorly uncool.

As the world changed Yahoo struggled to remain relevant. Unable to create their own halfway decent search engine, they used Google's until realizing that might not be a solution to their coming death spiral. Once a pioneer in webmail, they allowed Yahoo Mail to be eclipsed by Gmail.

And now Yahoo is the living dead of websites. While they're still visited by more people than almost any other site in the world, it's doubtful these people actually care whether they're visiting Yahoo or some other generic website. No, they visit out of rote habit, returning day after day because it's what they've done for years and they might as well visit one more time.

But that's not a recipe for success. Yahoo has become the web's equivalent of an outdated strip mall on the rundown edge of suburbia. People still visit but the visits are joyless and slightly disturbing. Everyone knows that any day now the bulldozers will arrive and flatten this piece of ugly, pointless nostalgia. But until that happens they figure they might as well keep coming.

I've known for many years that Yahoo was dead but I couldn't bring myself to bury the poor bastard. Even though I preferred my Gmail account, I'd had my Yahoo Mail account for so long that I couldn't stop using it. For the sake of nostalgia I ignored the continually intrusive updates and poorly thought out designs, all reflecting Yahoo's greater and greater desire to turn me into someone who cared about their products. I also ignored the hateful news stream on Yahoo's homepage, which highlighted the worst crackpot articles and rants and theories you could find online.

But yesterday, I finally stopped caring and buried Yahoo. I arrived as I usually did to find Yahoo forcing me to change my password. Sure, they'd say this was for security reasons but I knew that once I changed it everything would go bad. And it did. Yes, I could log in and see my emails, but every email I sent bounced back to me as undeliverable. Except for a few which didn't. There was no sense to the pattern.

But there hasn't been sense to anything about Yahoo in years.

Goodbye, Yahoo! Goodbye Yahoo Mail, which could no longer be trusted to actually deliver your mail. Goodbye Yahoo Messenger, which opened your life to hordes of spambots and unwanted strangers. Goodbye Yahoo defunct services, of which there were so very, very many.

Goodbye, Yahoo! I would say we'd miss you. But we won't.

A few thoughts on art and the ageless

Note: Lately I've been thinking about both my own writing and the entire creative process. Why do we strive to tell stories? What makes a piece of art worth sharing? These thoughts caused me to dig up this essay I wrote a while back.
 

There's an art which comes while doing archaeology in the August heat of Alabama. Sweat drips off the forehead in consistent, even drops. New-dug clays hint at a decay just beyond perception. Clouds scud the sky without reference to any unseen, human horizon.

To understand the ageless importance of the arts, do archaeology with me on this bluff overlooking the Tallapoosa River. Dig a ten-foot-deep excavation pit, exposing a child buried two thousand years ago. Most of what was buried with the child is gone — clothes, food, a shell necklace that disintegrates to the barest touch of air. But even though the child's bones have decayed to mere outline, art lives here. It resides in the delicate clay cup resting between the child's right arm and ribs.

The cup is art. Barely two inches wide, the cup evokes memories of the small bowls from a Japanese tea ceremony. And instead of the earth tones of most ancient pottery, this cup glows a soft blue. What artist created such a rare, subtle dye? Who was this child to be buried with such a piece of art?

For thousands of years people lived on this bluff. Within a week nothing will remain. A rock quarry is digging up the site because there is gravel below the top soil — and gravel sells for a million dollars per square acre. There will not be time to excavate most of the site. The cup from this child's burial might become the only remnant of an entire people.

Art resides within us. Like the gravel below this bluff, art supports all our dreams and ideas. Art is archaeology, revealing truth once the surface has been removed. Everything created leaves its mark on humanity's ground — the dark outlines of births and burials; the foundations of homes and dreams long gone. Art is the search for what rests below.

Throughout human history, in every culture and time, there have been artists whose excavations went deep into human life. Poets like Emily Dickinson. Painters like Van Gogh. Their art both revealed the buried pillars of our world and became the new supports of an ever-changing world.

This cup was never alive; this child was. But the art of the cup is our connection to this child, to the child's people, and to ourselves. To all we were and all we might ever be.

Time carries off the old lands we knew as surely as a rock quarry. Art remains and builds us a new place to live. And that land will be as deep as the death mask of Tutankhamen. As solid as the plays of Shakespeare. As penetrating as the novels of Zora Neale Hurston. As visual as the photographs of William Christenberry. As quiet as the poetry of Li Bai.

And as ageless as a cup by an unknown artist, nestled in the nook of a dead child's arm.