How has digital changed our perception of time?

Barbican Centre

Rebecca Coleman asks what ‘now’ means in a world where media is all-pervasive and always on.

Ping!
Check.
Refresh.
Scroll.
Start again.

This may be a familiar routine for those of us with smart phones, tablets and other digital devices. It contributes to a sense that contemporary life is accelerated, instant, hyper-connected and always-on. From constantly updating Twitter feeds to Snapchat photographs that can disappear in a few seconds, to television on demand and notifications from WhatsApp, it feels like our lives have become faster and more immediate, and that information and entertainment are available whenever and wherever we want them. At the same time, a range of apps and software programmes now exist to restrict access to websites for set periods, or help us become more mindful of the present moment. As part of an academic research project, I have been exploring these digital platforms in terms of how they affect our experience of time. There is a long history of technological developments changing scales and perceptions of time. The emergence of the Gutenberg printing press in the fifteenth century, for example, gradually led to what the political scientist Benedict Anderson called ‘an imagined community’ where people within a nation state were able to read a newspaper reporting on what was happening at roughly the same time. When video recorders became mass market goods in the 1980s, commentators coined the term ‘time-shifting’ to respond to how live broadcasts could be watched later on and more than once, at the viewer’s leisure. In the early twenty-first century, digital media are again compelling us to re-think time. What Snapchat, Netflix, WhatsApp and Twitter, alongside other digital media, all have in common is that they demand that we focus on ‘the now’. For example, with the ping! of a notification, we might find ourselves checking something immediately. In other cases, as with a television streaming service, we might lose ourselves in the moment. In other cases still, such as with mindfulness apps, we are encouraged to avoid distractions and focus on the present. These examples indicate that digital media produce not a uniform or cohesive ‘now but instead a range of different nows. This requires us to consider how ‘nows’ are shaped through different practices and platforms and generate a variety of experiences and feelings. I have been exploring these new ‘nows’ by interviewing people who work with digital media, including Social Media Managers, Digital Directors and Digital Strategists, to better understand how they think digital media are impacting upon our experience of the present. These interviews suggest that we’re encountering at least three different types of ‘now’.

Real-time nows
Pings and vibrations inform us of the arrival of new messages, emails and mentions as well as phone calls and breaking news. They punctuate the day (and night) and frequently require following up; replying to a text message, approving a Facebook tag, scanning the news event that is being reported as it unfolds. These pings! suggest a real-time now, where we are alerted to something as it is happening. For example, several of those I interviewed described Twitter as a ‘blast’ or ‘flash’ of live news and one told me about how the instant messaging channel Slack was used as a means for their colleagues to send thoughts and ideas whenever they popped into their heads. Sometimes these messages came late at night, generating a pressured ‘always-on feeling’. Here, the real-time now is shrunk to an immediacy that often requires a response, whatever the time of day. As one participant said of many social media platforms, ‘we’re doing the activity now, engage with it, engage with it!’

Others, however, talked about ‘real-time’ in a different way: ‘just because this thing is happening now, and it’s available online, doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to have time to look at it now’, one person said, drawing attention to how ‘the now’ may be videoed live, uploaded or archived online, and watched – or not – at another time. Another reported that, due to the regulation of the industry they work in, ‘it’s definitely very difficult to be real time and we’re definitely not instantaneous’. Tweets written live at an event, for instance, had to be checked by various departments and were often sent up to an hour later, stretching ‘real-time’ through this delay.

Elongated nows
An elongated now may also be generated by refreshing and scrolling. On the one hand, the constant refreshing of content insinuates an instantaneous, real-time now. On the other hand, however, content that is being constantly refreshed can lead to what one person called ‘mindless scrolling’, because there is seemingly no end to the feed; there will always be more. For this interviewee, mindless scrolling ‘depletes your capacity to focus on anything else, so it becomes a solution to the fact that you can’t focus. The more you are using it, the more it stops you from focusing’. The refreshing and scrolling talked about here produces ‘the now’ both as that which is happening live, and as that which is ongoing and unfinished. Indeed, another participant described how ‘you’re sitting in the current moment but you’re anxious to get to the next thing, so you scroll up to see what’s happened’. An ongoing now, then, involves both the live and the next.

Eliminated nows
Scrolling can also be a means of killing time while waiting at a bus stop or during a long train journey, for example. This characteristic of digital media was reflected on by some of the interviewees in terms of their own engagement – mindless scrolling, losing time on streaming services, browsing shopping websites or property search apps. They also discussed it as something that digital marketers, social media managers and app designers would seek to deliberately create and work with. One person mentioned the ‘snackable content’ her company designed for social media – ‘bitesize pieces of content that you can consume […] but it’s not going to stay in the forefront of their mind’. Another described the challenge of designing content that ‘piques’ the interest of those people who will be ‘just looking for something, anything’. Here, then, in various ways, digital media is understood as a way of wasting time – as with the immersion of binge watching – or killing time – as with detaching from the tedium of waiting by ‘just looking’. These ways of spending time are both built into digital media, and are a means to try to avoid or mitigate some of the alertness, anxiety and pressure that digital media help to create.

The examples discussed here indicate that we need to consider how ‘the now’ works differently. My suggestion is that ‘the now’ has elastic boundaries, stretching and contracting, expanding and condensing. Nows may involve immediacy and they may also be ongoing. They may be elongated and they may be eliminated. ‘The now’, then, is diverse, supple and changing. Or, as cultural theorist Raymond Williams puts it, the present is ‘active’, and ‘flexible’ (1977: 128).

Digital media are producing a ‘now’ time, and this ‘now’ time is varied. A number of questions are raised, then, about how we encounter and experience time on a daily basis. For instance, what are the similarities and differences between how we kill time, lose time, waste time and find time? How might we balance pressures and anxieties with more pleasurable aspects of digital media? How does a live, instantaneous, always-on, real-time change our sense of how we spend minutes, hours, weeks, years? In asking these questions, we are directing our attention to the crucial matter of how media technologies shape time, and asking what kind(s) of time dominate at any particular historical moment. We need to examine not only how the time of the ‘now’ is crucial, but also how we live with these nows, today.

Credits: Story

Rebecca Coleman is Reader in the Sociology Department, Goldsmiths, University of London, where she researches and teaches on topics including media, culture and society. She is Co-Director of Methods Lab, a research centre that supports novel cross-disciplinary and collaborative approaches to social issues. Her current project, Mediating Presents: Producing ‘the Now’ in Contemporary Digital Culture, is funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship.

This piece is part of our Life Rewired Reads, a selection of essays commissioned in response to Life Rewired, our season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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