Monthly Archives: March 2011

Making Time

[This is a draft of a column I wrote for the ACM’s interactions magazine.  It will appear mid 2011].
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One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been transformed into a monstrous verminous bug.

Thus begins one of my favourite novels, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. What is most remarkable about Gregor’s awakening, and his discovery that he has metamorphised into a dung beetle is that, in the minutes that follow, his greatest concern is that he has missed his train.

Like Gregor, time and schedules have been much on my mind of late. Why? Well, firstly, I overslept the other day. My phone is my alarm clock. Sadly, my phone had died quietly during the night. Ergo–no alarm to awaken me. Although I did not wake up a dung beetle, I was nevertheless disoriented. Secondly, about a week ago, I missed a meeting. Well, strictly speaking, I didn’t miss it because I didn’t know I was supposed to be at it. All I can surmise is that there had been a breakdown in the complicated network of services, applications, devices and people that constitutes the sociotechnical practice of time management called “calendaring”. The meeting was clearly listed on my colleague’s calendar, but not on mine.

So, given my recent horological mishaps, I have been ruminating on the concept of time and it’s management through calendars and alerts.

Calendars reckon past and/or future time. The primary purpose of the calendar is the orientation of our bodies and minds–and those of others–in time and space. In contrast to the fluidity of experienced time, calendars create boundaries between activities. They prescribe the amount of time we should spend on something:  30 minutes with Jane talking about her project, an hour for the meeting on budget, 1 hour giving a lecture on HTML-5, thirty minutes on a mandated management course…..and of course, finally, a day of rest.

To be effective social coordinators, calendars require that we share an idea of how time is structured, how it breaks down quantitatively. My minute and yours should both be 60 seconds; thus we can pass time at the same rate quantitatively–even if, qualitatively, for me the hours have rushed by and for you they have felt like swimming in treacle. And, we should share an idea of exactly when 8pm is if we are going to meet for dinner at 8pm.

Calendars don’t just keep individuals synchronised. Calendars, so scholars like the sociologist Emile Durkheim tell us, are central to societal order. Calendars are the sentinels of ‘appropriate’ behavior. Minutes and days and hours often have activities associated with them–indications of when we should work, rest, pray and/or play. Different social values are placed on different hours of the day and on days of the week; in many calendars Saturdays and Sundays are by default given less space, reflecting social norms that separate workdays from (non-work) weekend days. Routine, calendared time is central to creating a social sense of belonging. In his 2006 article, Tim Edensor argues that structured time in the form of everyday rhythms–which he breaks down into institutionalized schedules, habitual routines, collective synchronicities and serialized time-spaces–are how a sense of national identity and belonging is sustained. One can see this play out in my neighbourhood, wherein many different immigrant cultures reside. What is considered an appropriate time for dinner differs by several hours: between 6pm and 7pm for some, between 9pm and 10pm for others.

I suspect most of us take for granted the idea that we have a shared concept of time. However, the carving up of time into seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years is a convention, and the familiar structure of the predominant western calendar–the Gregorian calendar, which was only in introduced in 1582–differs from classical calendars like the Mayan, Aztec and Inca, and the more recent Julian calendar[1]. Notably, Russia and Greece only converted to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar in the 20th century. Further, it has not always been the case that someone in Bangalore could so easily work out what exactly time it is for me in San Francisco. It was only in the 1880’s that a uniform time was imposed in Britain; until then, time in Britain varied according to location. This local time stood in contrast to ‘ London time ’ (i.e. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)); Oxford was five minutes behind London, while Plymouth was twenty minutes behind London[2]. In his book The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 Stephen Kern writes of the railroads in the US, “Around 1870 if a traveler from Washington to San Francisco set his watch in every town he passed through, he would set it over 200 times”. The railroads instituted uniform time on November 18, 1883. In 1884 Greenwich was established to be the zero meridian and the 24 time zones one hour apart were established. Countries signed up to this structuring of time one by one: Japan in 1888, Belgium and Holland in 1892, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy in 1893. At the International Conference on Time in 1912 the telegraph was proposed to be the method of maintaining accurate time signals and transmitting them around the world; astronomical readings were to be taken and sent to the Eiffel Tower that would relay them to eight stations spaced over the globe. This process was inaugurated on July 1st 1913 at 10am. Global time was born, and the death knell rang for the quaint custom of local time. In an odd way, we can thus trace our globally shared, personal and corporate calendars back to the railroads for instigating the rationalization of time across the globe. It’s quite fitting, therefore, that missing the train is foremost in Gregor’s mind when he wakes up.

However, while synchronised global time connects us, it is all too easy sometimes to forget that there are in fact a number of calendars in operation in parallel today–Chinese, Hebrew and Islamic are just three examples.

As I turn back to my missed meeting, I note that calendars have ecclesiastical origins; the Book of Hours structured time into routines for work and worship for monks in the Benedictine order. However, in sharp contrast to the quiet, stable regularity of the liturgical life, my calendar is a chaotic beast in constant need of maintenance and management. Meetings pop on and off like jumping beans as the hoping-to-be-assembled try to find a time that works for all concerned. Vigilence is required lest one is triply booked, and priorities are always being calculated: Is this meeting more important than that one but if so and so is there then that is a good opportunity to get things moving forward…… Oh no, now they are not going to be there after all and yet I am committed to going, how do I shift this around…… and on and on.

The root of the problem lies in the multiples–multiple calendars and multiple people on one calendar. For the first point, I have too many calendars and the effective synchronization of my calendars is not a solved problem. Ghost (long departed/deleted) meetings haunt the calendar on my computer, while my mobile phone presents a suspiciously clean blank slate. Sometimes there is little correspondence between the two, despite their notionally being jacked in to the same server. For the second point, shared calendars (such a good idea in principle) are a gargantuan, social rogue elephant. Herein lie clashes in culture, herein lie power relationships and herein lie a network of complex dependencies. Routine issues arise for me in the following forms: blank space on the calendar, the curse of durational rigidity, the clash between sociotemporal and biotemporal time, and the problem of travel time. Lets briefly review each of these…..

Idle’ time People routinely look at my calendar to determine when I am free to meet; they plop meetings on my calendar based on what they see as ‘free’ time. This is based on a fallacious assumption–that if there is nothing recorded there, then I am free. This is a misreading of my practice of calendar use. Booked times on my calendar are not simply islands of colour in a collaborative paint-by-numbers schematic where the blanks are inviting others to fill them in–I saw a gap so I filled it.

Of course, idle time is anathema to the shared calendar in a culture where to be not actively doing could possibly be interpreted as shirking. In my view, day of back-to-back meetings means there is too little time for creative thought or for reflection. Research indicates that time when one is doing the least, as for example when meditating, is when the most creative moments can occur[3]. The jammed calendar, continual context-switching and mad dashes from one location to another are emotionally draining, mania inducing and counter to creativity.

So I sometimes put “meetings” onto my calendar to simply block some thinking time. I feel sheepish about this. I am reminded of a friend of mine, who, when we were teenagers, used to write things like “peas and carrots for tea” in her journal. Recording peas and carrots was not because of some dietary obsession, they stood in as code for ‘held hands’ and ‘kissed’, reporting on her teenage encounters with her boyfriend; the code was invented lest her mother should read her journal and be mortified by her teenage explorations. So, it is that I transform thinking, writing and reading into ‘Strategy’ and ‘Planning’, appropriate behaviours for a corporate context. Durkheim and followers are correct: how one manages one’s time is an issue of morality and social accountability, not just temporal coordination. It’s a tricky business.

Durational rigidity For the operationally minded, a meeting that is scheduled for an hour must last an hour even when nothing is being achieved. On the other side of that, sometimes one can be just warming up, just getting to the crux of a problem and the hour is up, the meeting has to end truncating the creative process.

Travel time Another problem, and one where a simple technical solution would help out, is travel time between locations. When one works in several different office buildings that are miles apart, it takes time to get from one to the other. It would be useful if I could hook my calendar up to these locations, and have travel time calculated and reflected automatically. So if a meeting is dropped onto my calendar, travel time is automatically blocked in–in fact, I could imagine a lot of background calculating that can be done by hooking my calendar up to location and to my social services and applications[4].

Biotemporal time Working across time zones can be really hard. The cheerful calendar flattens time, it sees all times as equal. Calendars are simply tabulated time in a grid, they do not reflect lived time. Odd times for calls can sneak in there, creating social and personal dilemmas–I want to be a good citizen but I know I am going to be less than my best at that time. Sociotemporal times (as in when it is appropriate to be working and when not) clashes here with biotemporal time. Being on a meeting conference call when your body and your entire environment tells you that you should be sleeping is simply hard. Time may be global but my body is not.

None of my observations are earth-shatteringly novel. There has been a wealth of research in the HCI community from the early 1980’s and continuing now today, on life scheduling and calendaring–in collocated and in distributed workgoups, in the home, in leisure groups, within families, between families, on paper, across paper and other devices, on personal computers, using mobiles, using location services and with visual front end experiences including3D representations. Just to name a few of the research directions. There are typologies of calender user type such as that offered by Carmen Neustaedter and colleagues who call out three different types of families—assigning them to the categories monocentric, pericentric, and polycentric according to the level of family involvement in the calendaring process. Monocentric families are those where the routine is centered on a primary scheduler, pericentric families have the calendar routine centered on the primary scheduler with infrequent involvement by secondary schedulers and polycentric families are those where the calendar routine is still centered on the primary schedulers, yet secondary schedulers are now frequently involved. BUT despite all this work, there’s still plenty we can do in the world of sociotechnical design to rethink the calendar. My calendar does not feel “_centric” in any way; it feels chaotic.

“We shape our dwellings and afterward our dwellings shape us” said Winston Churchill in 1943. We could apply this observation to time; we shaped the calendar and now the calendar shapes us, it dictates how we (should) live. True to Louis Sullivan’s adage form follows function, the digital calendar wears its assumptions and its intellectual heritage on its sleeve: computer science, psychology, information architecture and the ethical structure of the approved-of day. Perhaps we need a new tack.

In Branko Lukic’s and Barry Katz’s 2011 text, Nonobject, they explore product designs that sit at the interstices of philosophy and technology. They step back from simplistic notions of form and function to shake up how we think about products, to question what is ‘normal’ or taken for granted, and to question the values that are embedded within the typical form of everyday artifacts. In a section entitled Overclocked, they explore clocks and watches, our time-keepers. Katz writes, “as our measuring devices grow ever more accurate, we find ourselves perpetually “overclocked” to use a term familiar to every computer hacker who has ratcheted up a component to run at a higher clock speed than it was intended for in order to coax higher performance out of a system. We do the same to ourselves.” A number of designs are presented: the Tick-Tock Inner Clock that taps against the skin to let someone feel the passage of time and the Clock Book where time is laid out on pages we can turn–when we want to–push. Lukic’s watches and clocks invite us to rethink we conceptualize, represent and manage time. Somewhat less extreme but nevertheless taking a playful take on clock design, Alice Wang’s 2009 suggestion for the Tyrant alarm clock is brilliant. This alarm clock calls people from your address book on your mobile phone every three minutes if you don’t get up and turn it off; with this, Wang is betting that the anxiety of broadcasting your slothful habits to anyone in your address book will propel you to get up. Wang gleefully reports that it is the social guilt that will get people moving out of bed. Social anxiety has long been a driver for action; this is I think a nice example of it, and this is a step beyond thinking instrumentally about the clock’s utility/function in isolation from the rest of one’s life.

Let’s do the same thing with calendars. Let’s take a step back. Let’s follow Lukic and take our lead from Architectura Da Carta, the Italian tradition of articulating and illustrating the unlikely, the unbuilt and the unbuildable. Let’s use art, philosophy and technological creativity to envision a better aesthetic experience, to blast the calendar apart and rebuild it; let’s be better about enabling the plularity of private and public times that humans live in parallel; let’s automate the calculation of time in motion between location(s); let’s build in time for creativity and reflection as social and moral imperative; let’s make a calendar that adapts the schedule when it realizes you have woken up having metamorphised into a sentient dung beetle.


[1] See Anthony Aveni Empires of Time. Calendars, Clocks and Cultures, New York: Basic Books, 1953

[2] See Journal of Design History Vol. 22 No. 2 Designing Time: The Design and Use of Nineteenth-Century Transport Timetables by Mike Esbester

[3] See for example The neuropsychological connection between creativity and meditation published in ‘Creativity Research Journal’, 2009 by Roy Horan

[4] See Lovett and colleagues on this in their Ubicomp 2010 paper: The Calendar as a Sensor: Analysis and Improvement Using Data Fusion with Social Networks and Location

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