Swatch Beat

The Social Life of Information

I recently bought a Swatch wristwatch that displays “Internet Time.” In Internet Time the day is divided into 1000 “beats” lasting 1 minute, 26.4 seconds each. Beat 000 falls at midnight in Biel, Switzerland, where MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte helped Swatch inaugurate the new system in 1998. The institution of local time, Negroponte argued, is a confusing encumbrance in an era of instant global communication. “The digital world will make our lifestyles more asynchronous,” he said. “For many people, real time will be Internet Time.”

I find Internet Time entertaining, though I often catch myself trying to convert it in my head back to local standard time, which rather defeats the point. But John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid would call Internet Time a sinister example of “tunnel design”-the enshrining of fluid, borderless information without the supposedly dead weight of its original social, organizational or institutional contexts.Many parts of the new digital infrastructure, they argue in The Social Life of Information, are being built and marketed by “infoenthusiasts” for whom individuals and information are the basic units of existence. “From this viewpoint, value lies in information, which technology can refine away from the raw and uninteresting husk of the physical world,” they write. A concept like time, however, is inescapably physical. The system of time zones has been in use since the 1880s because most of us prefer to organize our days around local noon, when the sun is overhead.

Brown, the director of Xerox PARC, and Duguid, a historian and social theorist at Berkeley, give a range of similar, well-documented examples in their book. Telecommuting has not spread as fast as expected, they sensibly conclude, because even the most wired employees still need face-to-face contact and frequent technical support. Digitization has not brought about the paperless office because it’s still far easier to determine the importance, provenance and proper use of a paper document than an electronic one. New organizational processes introduced by reengineering frequently fail because they ignore the individual practices that actually keep businesses running. And so on. “New techniques and technologies often aim to remove a surface constraint (objects, organizations, practices, institutions) without appreciating their submerged resourcefulness,” Brown and Duguid sum up. For this kind of technological reality check, it’s not a Swatch beat too soon.

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