Fruit flies like a banana

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I agree about the banana, but I’m not so sure about the arrow. Not everyone conceptualizes time as a relentless hurtling forward.  Some cultures understand time as a fractal, a spiral, a mandala, or a cycle.  We have body time, clock time, and Deep Time.  Short-term orientation is the norm for some cultures; others emphasize investing for the future, patience and perseverance.

Visualizing temporality is a fundamental issue in interaction design today. Our beliefs about time and its passage profoundly affect the design of software and interactive media. It’s time for interaction designers to understand deeply how our customers know time, whether as an arrow, a spiral or a squiggle.  How people slice and dice nature into concepts is fundamental to designing tools people can use to successfully live on the earth.

1. What is the shape of time?

As interaction designers, do we know what mental models our customers use to represent the experience of time?

Calendars, clocks and other models of time often are designed with the understanding that time is a forward-moving arrow, moving from a past moment when time began, to a future end of time.

Three arrows of time are described by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. “First, there is the thermodynamic arrow of time, the direction of time in which disorder or entropy increases. Then, there is the psychological arrow of time. This is the direction in which we feel time passes, the direction in which we remember the past but not the future.

NASA diagram of the expanding universe

Finally, there is the cosmological arrow time. This is the direction of time in which the universe is expanding rather than contracting.”

It all sounds very logical, doesn’t it?

That is, it’s logical to the Western, English-speaking scientific mind.  However, not everyone conceptualizes time as a relentless hurtling forward and onward?

There are some cultures which believe in a linear time, but as an arrow which rushes backwards toward us from the future. Business people may think of a calendar day as broken up into quarter-hour calendar chunks. I remember that when I was a child, my days were single seamless instants.

José Argüelles’ T’zolkin calendar

The ancient Mayans described time as an interlocking grid of precise intervals between states of being, diagramming this grid as a double helix. The interval between integers is the state of chaos, the matrix for creative activity.

Time has been described as being like a river. A river flows from a source, and at the mouth, it unites with a larger body of water, which eventually evaporates into clouds, from which fall rain, from which rivers form. So if time is like a river, it is both linear and cyclical, with recurring celebrations of Blue Mondays and Harvest moons, birthdays and wedding anniversaries, Beltaine and Christmas.

I grew up with clocks that told the story that time is round, but perhaps it is more like a spiral, because each time the hour hand revolves, we find ourselves in a new, entirely different day. Some believe in reincarnation, a theory which posits that people are reborn higher or lower on the spiral of life, according to one’s behavior.

The founder of the Foundation for the Law of Time, José Argüelles, has suggested that time could be viewed as a mandala, a “field of resonance” or a fractal.  Metaphysician, ethnobotanist and art historian Terence McKenna pictured time as a “holographic medium” in which we are embedded like “biological oscillators”.  Tielhard de Chardin, who was a French philosopher, Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist, spoke of the space/time continuum as having a “convergent nature”, with an “Omega point” of involution.

And some people understand time as boundary-less, with no moment of Creation and no end.

Me, at the tail end of an 18-hour flight, still one hour and fifteen minutes from home.

2. What’s the difference between local time and body time?

As interaction designers, how can we differentiate the personal experience of time from clock time?

Stephen Hawking has said that “…In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving.” A person taking a long international trip is intensely concerned with specific local clock times and calendar dates, in order to catch planes, arrive at reserved hotel rooms, and rent cars at times when car rental locations are open. However, simultaneously, they are in a new kind of time – body time, which is the aggregate response of one’s own biology to the shifting temporal landscape of travel.  For example, I remember arriving in Paris at “breakfast time” when my own body was desperately pleading for “bedtime”.  No one will argue that the personal experience of time is highly subjective, and varies from culture to culture. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “… the clocks move separately from our authentic time.”

3. How can we make the time?

As architects of the experience of time, what raw materials do we have to work with?

We are creative beings. To create is to fundamentally transform raw materials, yielding random and unpredictable results. One of those raw materials we can transform is our perception of time – and our perception of time is all there is to time.

Writer and teacher Alice Bailey said, “…time is the sequence of events and of states of consciousness as registered by the physical brain. Where no physical brain exists, what humanity understands by time is nonexistent.”  In other words, if a tree falls in the forest and there is no observation of its descent, it fell in no time.   Time is a construct, so it doesn’t have an intrinsic shape. It only has the shape we assign it. As we learn to think and behave with more complexity, we give our time more fantastic shapes.

Time and space are dynamic — our choices and behaviors are the algorithms which determine the patterns which are generated.

International travelers at the Miami airport, 2009, making their own time

4. Have I been around long enough to know that you’re the one I want to go through time with?

How can we design interactive experiences of time which attract and engage?

Online travel aggregators such as Kayak, Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia, and post-booking travel planning sites like TripIt and Dopplr are exploring the best way represent different kinds of time. They are devising date pickers and time pickers. They are investigating ways to represent overall elapsed time, time between flights, flight time, time zone changes, probability of delay, trip segment time, depart/return time, preferred times, requested times, times that are in or out of company policy.  Many other web applications, smartphone applications, games and other interactive media are also exploring the frontiers of time visualization.

With a web browser page, we are trapped in the Deep Present. In my industry, the idea is to cram as much functionality as possible into the web page, giving the visitor a bewildering variety of choices, keeping them immersed in your slice of time. Many software conventions have been invented to add depth and dimension to the present moment – dropdown and popup menus, tabbed or hierarchical menus, microcontent, popups, slideouts – but, in truth, everything you see is confined to the screen, and that screen is your Present. A Deep Present, but now, now, now.  The past and the future cannot be reliably available the way they are with a book or any printed object, which are built in a left-to-right arrow-of-time manner. Books, in a very tangible way, give one simultaneous access to the present, the page I am reading; the past, the pages I have already read; and the future, which consists of pages I have not yet read.

Since screen real estate is limited, if we want to get the most bang for the buck out of the interactive experience, we must work to expand time for the user. This is a reasonable project.

The luscious twilight at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm in Ontario

When we were very young, and wanted to go out into the luscious twilight and play, a dinner hour could seem like an eternity. As an adult, that same span of time can fly while making love or having an intense conversation. The experience of time is relative, and variable according to the perceptions of the observer. This is a tool which can be played with by the interaction designer.

What makes a kid play with the same toy, over and over again?

5. Is this a good time?

Why should interaction designers turn their attention to the study of time visualization now?

We need to be thoughtful and conscious as we design the representation of time, for our beliefs about time and its passage profoundly affect the design of software and systems, interfaces and visual identity. What goes on in the window is, like spoken and written language, both a mirror of our Selves and deep shaper of our daily lives.

We have a recent example of inadequate attention to the issue of time in the field of software development.  The Year 2000 problem, or “millennium bug”, was the result of inadequate attention to the issue of time, in the infancy of software development.  As a result, data was trapped in two-digit date formats, and many were challenged convert to four-digit format before the end of 1999.

The representation of temporality is the fundamental issue in interaction design today.  For example, one issue is how to design for both Eastern and Western audiences, who differ in the cultural trait described by Dutch anthropologist Geert Hofstede, the Long- versus Short-term Orientation. This trait describes to what extent the group invests for the future, is persevering, and is patient in waiting for results. China is said to lead this dimension, followed by Hong Kong and Taiwan. The United States is seventeenth.

As an interaction designer with an online travel company, I want to know how our customers think of time, whether as an arrow, a spiral or a squiggle.  How people slice and dice nature into concepts is fundamental to designing tools people can use to successfully navigate our spinning earth.

The one-liner, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” is by Groucho Marx,  an American comedian who lived from 1890 to 1977.

The painting of the dripping watch is by Salvador Dali.

The poster at the top of this post is unattributed; if anyone knows the source, please let me know.

Most of the photos were taken by myself, and the one of me, disgruntled at the end of my trip to Jamaica last fall, was taken by my amused husband.

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