How to Build a Time Machine

In Steven Johnson‘s excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, he explores the idea of ‘the adjacent possible’ – that at certain moments in history, breakthroughs in culture and technology are made more possible because of work that has gone before. Related to this is the idea that innovation is rarely the result of ‘the lone genius’, but more a result of collaboration. Indeed, it can sometimes seem that several people, disconnected from each other apart from through a network of ideas, can be swimming around the same breakthrough. Hence, why there’s probably no single inventor of television, for instance.

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that time, as a concept, is becoming one of these whirlpools that people are being drawn to. And personally, I think there’s something really exciting that hooks them all together – it may not be a fully fleshed out thought, but it feels like the right time to get it out there and provoke further discussion. The thought – perhaps time travel really is possible – but not quite how we’d imagined it.

Firstly, though, a quick review of some of those bits and pieces that keep me coming back to this idea. As others have noted, we’re fast approaching the point where we’re not only concerned about the personal information we’re putting online in terms of privacy, but there’s also enough of it for us to want to understand it better. Call it personal informatics (as in various health tracking systems), or something like Memolane – history is becoming a big deal. I’ve written before about the ‘tyranny of breaking news’, so I’m all for something that gets us out of constantly being bombarded with the ‘new’.

One of the most interesting applications of this, in my opinion, has been the ‘Momento‘ app. Nothing revolutionary, you might think – it’s a system that brings together your activity on various social networks, and allows you to annotate ‘moments’. But the important bit for me is the elegant way in which tweets and so on are organised – by date. There’s very few applications (that I’ve encountered) that do this.

A few other, tangential projects, deal with a similar theme. James Bridle’s ‘A Ship Adrift‘ has a stationary object, the titular ship, drifting through time. And Mark Hurrell’s ‘Places I’ve Been‘ is a tumblr of photos he’s taken, with a great big dirty timestamp slap bang in the middle of the photo.

London, Now‘ is a live feed of Instagram photos as they come in, again, with the time/date to the fore. And finally, Ben Ward wrote a really good piece on using time as a design principle. And this, I think, is the main point – too often, time and date have been an extra piece of metadata, on the side, unloved. If we’re lucky, then it’s been used as a quiet way of navigating through archives.

What’s missing, I feel, is the idea of time as the central organising concept on the Web. Matt Sheret, in his dConstruct presentation from 2011, talked about how pocket watches and railroads conspired (not literally..) to bring about a change in the consciousness of the nation – time was becoming much more synchronised across geographical boundaries. It became a thing that you could reference, point at, and organise everything else around.

Of course, as I’ve said to anyone who’ll listen, the Web is all about pointing-at-things. And those things, I feel, can be conceptual as well as physical – this isn’t just the Internet of Things, it’s the Internet of Conceptual Things. And screens aren’t a given, either. So, why not make time addressable, point-at-able?

A couple of years back, myself, Rob Styles and Jonathan Tweed were sitting in a bar discussing our work – we were talking about the foundations for a storytelling platform at the BBC (one which is, as I speak, hopefully coming to fruition). We wanted to make the building blocks of stories point-at-able. Sure, they wouldn’t be everything that makes up a story, the Web not yet fully able to deliver the same tricks that we’ve grown used to in print, audio, images and film. But it was a start. And one of the things we discussed was – what if we didn’t just treat time as a property of an event – what if it was a first order object?

Why bother? We’ve managed to teach computers how to calculate dates and times with ease (save a mass panic over the millennium) – so why go against the grain?

The grand sage Wikipedia tells us of a philosophy of time, called Eternalism. This is the idea that time isn’t something that we are doomed to speed through, but rather that packets of time will always exist. And if there are discrete packages of time, then they can be referenced, they can be accessed. So again, this isn’t time as a property, a query string – it’s time as the main thing.

Theoretically, of course, there are holes in the idea – just as we’ve always thought of time travel into the past, via conventional means (some would say, in reality..) as pretty much impossible. But perhaps it’s possible in a conceptual, constructed manner, instead.

Make time addressable – give packets (i.e. spans of time) URIs, and then we can link to them, we can build services, applications, imaginative creations on top. Web Standard Time.

Imagine a dome, say, the size of the O2 arena, with the inside covered in flat screens. Now imagine that every Google Street View photo has been linked to a packet of time. Before entering the arena, you input details of a street, and a particular date and time. When you step in, you are completely surrounded, immersed, as if you were stepping on to that street on that day. That, is a time machine. And I think we should build one. Just to try it out.

(Thanks to Ben Bashford, Chris Sizemore, Alyson Fielding and Henry Cooke for the nudges to finally get this blog post written, and many others for the inspiration!)

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