Keeping Time Online

It’s become apparent, if it weren’t already long before, that humans and computers operate on different timescales.
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Keeping Time Online

It’s become apparent, if it weren’t already long before, that humans and computers operate on different timescales. It feels so obvious to state that computers don’t keep time like humans do, but it didn’t feel quite tangible until we started seeing AIs act like humans on a daily basis, contributing internet content in a way that was previously our domain. 

For the last few months, a lot of the content I’ve been sent, looked at, thought about, is AI-generated or at least AI-involved in some capacity. A lot of that content has been packaged in compilations or digests to the effect of ‘What you missed this week in AI,’ or ‘What you missed today in AI,’ even. And I’ve started to feel this tug, this distinct feeling of arriving and already being behind, always. That feeling has always been somewhat endemic to being online, but this feels new. Reviewing everything I’ve ‘missed,’ the limit of computer time feels infinite, their energy boundless, their speed incomprehensibly fast. The limit of our time suddenly feels so painfully finite, our energy so inconsistent, and our pace so humble and human.

It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that it’s just started, really: the true magnitude of potential energy we’re watching AI build. It’s generally referred to as growing at a “double exponential,” which I honestly didn’t know existed as a graphical option. Aza Raskin from the Center for Humane Technology, who spoke with Tristan Harris on March 9th on the subject of “The AI Dilemma,” said, “…even creating this presentation, if I wasn't checking Twitter a couple times a day, we were missing important developments. This is what it feels like to live in the double exponential.”

There’s this question I keep coming back to, as I also try to stay on top of it all, of simply: How are we going to do this? There have already been calls for bans on AI, with some countries moving ahead with those bans already. But, assuming it’s not only here to stay, but on course to ramp up with no terminal velocity in sight, how are we going to manage the experience of being online? To say nothing of the larger, scarier societal implications, how are we going to meet its limitlessness with our human limits? How are we going to parse the magnitude of content and change that’s going to descend? How do we fit AI’s timelessness into the rhythms of time that govern human life?

I was just staying in a lovely apartment in Lisbon embedded in the bustling neighborhood of Baixa. I took a break from work to step outside in search of lunch and was immediately overwhelmed by an onslaught of stimuli—cars and trolleys full of tourists carting from place to place, trinket shops overflowing with bright colors and cheap fabrics. I wandered away from the crowds until I found a small cafe tucked into a nearby side street. I stepped into the mercy of a quiet playlist, a small menu, and some well-placed plants in a sun-lit back patio. There was a funny sense stepping away from the chaos and into that cafe that this is the feeling I’m missing online—this sort of poetic sense of a small, well-curated space. Sometimes it seems like that vibe is fundamentally incompatible with the internet, that the internet must feel like the busiest tourist avenues—the Information Superhighway after all! Not the Information Winding Side Street! But I don’t believe it has to be that way.

The week before I was watching 2001 Space Odyssey after a long work day spent largely online. Like my little cafe, it felt like a meditation! And it’s a space thriller. A space thriller that features an AI even! It is famously long and nonverbal: the first 25 and final 23 minutes of the film have no dialogue. There’s even an intermission! I happily made some tea and returned to my body for a few minutes before the second half started. It felt so thoughtfully choreographed, so mindful of the limits of its audience—how attention flickers like a candle, rather than glowing steadily like a lightbulb.

I’ve started to think about what this might feel like online, and I’ve found there’s a constellation of promising corners of the internet that capture this essence: that ‘on’ doesn’t have to be always ‘on,’ that more is not always better, that everyone can’t see everything, that finite beats infinite. Arc, for example, a new browser I’ve been using for the past few months, defaults to hiding all the tabs you have open while you explore your current tab. It’s a simple gesture, but I love it. It says, “Yes, seeing all the other things you’re working on is a distraction. Yes, you can look away from them while you read this article. They’re there for you when you choose.” Then there’s, described as a “garden of ideas,” which lets humans do all the work of connecting content, rather than an algorithm. Or  BeReal, a mobile app, in which, “Every day at a different time, everyone is notified simultaneously to capture and share a Photo in 2 Minutes.” In a similar spirit is Minus: “a finite social media network where you get 100 posts—for life.” Or most recently, Internet Cafe, a friend’s soon-to-launch project designed to help sift through online noise with limited person-to-person recommendations. These things aren’t mainstream, but I think as we’re flooded with more and more content generated at unprecedented speeds, a meaningful corner of a slower, quieter internet will gain traction, rising to the occasion with thoughtfully-curated respites from all the noise.

The increasing popularity of newsletters and podcasts also seem to be tugging on a sort of ancient wisdom of the peace that grows out of the rhythms of finite rituals. In establishing a cadence, they make room for a ritual to be born—think of the Friday sabbath or the Sunday sermon. My newsletters all arrive on either Friday afternoon or Sunday afternoon, which I don’t take to be coincidental. Their Friday arrival signals the end of my work week, as I widen my attention and transition into a more expansive weekend. On Sunday night, they mark my mental transition out of weekend play and into the more cerebral world of my work. They channel the essence of ‘the hour of correspondence’ from the letter writing of the 17th—18th century: a designated hour for reading and writing your letters. They share a sense of contained, designated time that slots into our 24-hour sense of the world.

At risk of taking the religious analogy too far, it’s been argued that in the modern collapse of mainstream organized religion, celebrities and influencers have grown into our modern deities: the aspirational figures who dispense lore and wisdom, around which we build meaning and community. To position our newsletter writers and podcasters as our sources of divine structure and keepers of time sounds extreme—and it is. But I feel there is something to learn here from their six days of silence, the one afternoon in which they invite my attention. I’ve found a lot of peace from these cadence-builders who function outside of the torrent of the feeds.

In thinking about what I want the internet to feel like, I’ve found it very helpful to try to physicalize internet spaces. We evolved to communicate and process information in physical spaces, so it makes sense that we might find value in trying to understand how the “places” we inhabit online register for us on that more primal level. New_Public has done a lot of interesting research around what we can learn from the design of physical spaces as we try to design our digital ones. For example, Twitter, they imagine as:

“a crowded parking lot on a busy shopping day, with many people talking at once about a lot of different topics. Some people get to use loudspeakers – that’s algorithmic amplification. There are lots of arguments among strangers, and little ability to form small groups and set standards of behavior.”

Bleak. But, more hopefully, they invite us to look to the fire pits recently built in Memphis River Park for inspiration as “a physical space that acts as a bridge between communities that don't often connect or relate to each other:”

“the parks department found that outdoor fire pits, with benches around them, were well-suited to this purpose. They brought different families into proximity in a calm and convivial way, without having to immediately jump into conversation.”

A fire pit can’t serve the needs of an entire shopping mall’s visitors, but that’s also at the core of why the design works. The shape is designed in consideration of the needs of the human body. The size is designed in consideration of the limits of human conversation. 

What might we design in consideration of the limits and rhythms of human time online? What fire pits and small cafes can we build? I think we’re going to need a lot of them.