March 08, 2005

The Clock/Globe Spacetimepiece & Historical Alarm Clock

(updated with new conclusion)

Einstein's Theory of Relativity tells us that space and time are ultimately the same thing. Now that's a loaded concept that philosophers and their wannabees can unpack for centuries, but its probably sufficient to say that space and time are densely interconnected.

The original clock was space itself, or more precisely the earth's rotation on its axis through space, which produced days and nights, dawn's and dusks. A step beyond these markers in terms of observation is high noon and the gradients of light generated by the transformation of the earth's location in space throughout the daylight.

There is a rich history of timepieces that we'll have to skip to bring us to the classic western clock dial. These clocks where also spacial, but flattened the earth's three dimensional rotation into the two dimensions of the cartesian plane. Perhaps more importantly where two other actions though. One was the division of the day into two separate full rotations on the dial. This process broke the direct relationship of the clock hands rotation to earth's rotation, the beginning of the forgetting. The second was the introduction of numbers as a symbolic system to represent time without any use of space (other then as a place to hold the symbols).

The advent of digital clocks completed the divorce of time and space as mental concepts. Time becomes a set of metrics driven by simple physical properties, generally the oscillations in quartz crystals. This process produced a massive wealth of positive effects including the ability for people to synchronize, to conduct scientific observations and to choose to pace themselves with a non-human rhythmic cycle. But there are also certain drawbacks to it all.

Time as human's experience it is quite different then as its measured by swinging pendulums and quartz oscillations. In attempting to fit their lives into metric time frames people sometimes lose out on experience. Alarm clocks constantly smash into our sleeping patterns, overriding them with the regime of the quartz crystal. This issue reaches some of its extremes in factories run on the principals of Frederick Winslow Taylor particularly when combined with the semiautomation of assembly lines. On a more intimate level it also impacts drastically on certain individuals such as autistics and obsessives who sometimes reach states where the clock dominates their ability to function in the world.

There are also certain issues with time that emerge on a more political level. As our present concepts of time emerged and evolved certain assumptions where ossified into the structure and have taken on certain oppressive characteristics. Time zones often have more to do with political, economic and cultural dominance then with when the sun rises and sets. This map illustrates it well. The exact opposite problem arises from the spread of electric lighting, while our social hours have shifted, we continue to set our clocks based on numbers synced to the needs of farmers working in daylight. For instance "daylight savings time" actually moves the clock in the opposite direction then many office workers who would like to leave work in the daylight desire. The end result of this is a confusing system of time, that sometime desynchronizes as much as it syncs.

None of this of course changes the fact that synchronized time is extremely useful. The goal of New Earth Time(net time), which this project works with, is not to replace the current system of time, but to supplement it. Their system is metric, but reconnects the symbols with space. It also eliminates the political element by using on time for the entire earth. Rather then hours and minutes it works on degrees of rotation, a metric showing how much the prime meridian has rotation since midnight. The goal is to produce a universal time for use in arranging meetings with people across the globe.

In all honesty I remain skeptical but intrigued about the synchronization benefits of net time. There is clearly a benefit to one global time, but it may well be completely offset by the difficulty in mental translation needed to integrate local time appointments with net time ones. Ultimately this is in many ways an issue of cultural salesmanship and I'm not taking up.

What is extremely interesting to me is the return of the spacial to the metric of time, which I think leads to the revelation of numerous possiblities previously obscured by the structure of time data.

Working closely with Carlos Borges, I was involved in producing three objects exploring net time in a variety of interrelated ways.

The first of these objects is the clock itself, which takes the time off the server and translates into degrees. It should be noted that this could easily be done on the server itself, but given that we did not have the ability to add to the server code itself in this project we pushed the code to a PIC microprocessor chip, which then served it out to the network.

The second object is a globe. Here the transformation of time back into space is essentially completed. The globe when working as intended will rotate in its axis (using a stepper motor) with the location of high noon always aligned with a marker on the front of the globe holder. The front side of the globe will illustrate what areas are currently in sunlight. This tells the view where they can contact people using space rather then metrics and allows people to make many time decisions without ever needing to sync themselves to the metrics of the quartz clock.

The final object is the wooden brick that will eventually house the clock server. Also known as the historical alarm clock. The brick serves several functions, the simplest is casing for the clock server object. More complex is its role in replacing the traditional (for late 20th century America) bedside alarm clock. Instead of waking up to flashing numbers next to your head, you can wake up next to a wooden brick with a rich history behind it. The ethernet cable running out of it serves as a reassuring reminder that you are still networked, you can still sync with the world, but you don't need to be dominated by the pacing of a digital clock in order to do it.

Already the alarm clock is becoming vestigial, most cell phones incorporate its functionality as well as that prime bedside position. And in the near future your cyborg monkey-cat might be programmed to sit on your chest at 5am, or perhaps your passive agressive coffee maker will start brewing at 7, scalding at 8 and burning your house down around 9. With such wonderful appliances around who needs some glowing numbers? Instead you can wake up next to a wonderful brick.

This particular wooden brick comes from West Street along the Greenpoint waterfront. It is part of what is probably the only wooden sidewalk left in New York City. I have tried several times but have never found any documentation of any remaining wooden sidewalk in NY at all, but this stretch of West Street clearly has one, albeit one in a state of serious disrepair. It is situated a very particular historical location, at site that in many ways represents the birth of the American military industrial complex. At this location the Monitor, America's first ironclad battleship was built.

Standing on West Street looking through the chain link fence one can see the evolution of American industry. At the waterside is a small brick Civil War era building. Connected to it is a sequence of progressively larger more complex industrial buildings stretch perhaps a quarter mile to the street. Here the complex's growth was challenged but not constrained, instead it leapt across the street the buildings connected by a series of multistory bridgeways, now decayed down to steel skeletons.

Waking up next to the organic wooden brick taken from this location, the waker is presented with quite a different sort of time then the one represented by a traditional alarm. It is quite, nonmetric and historical. Organic yet representative of an explosive history of steel, machines and violence. If there is any alarm it is of a historical nature. It potential reminds the waker of their place in history, or perhaps they just think 'look at my lovely networked brick'. Either way they wake up in a much smoother space, free of the harshness of metrics, at least until they login in to the network..

Posted by William Blaze at March 8, 2005 01:27 AM | TrackBack