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Media and Time

Media and Time

In the context of 19th and 20th century moder- nity—its technical revolutions and specific ways of experiencing time—the insight has grown that our ideas of time are decisively shaped by our interaction with media: Media influence our understanding of time. Particularly in investiga­tions in cultural and media theory, there have been attempts to work out the dependencies between media and conceptions of time. The following cultural-historical transformation can be consid­ered as paradigmatic for the assumption of media­time dependency: the change in our experience of time through the invention of the clock.

Thanks to a uniform mechanical process, time became precisely measurable, independent of subjective impressions of time and independent of sequences of natural events (e.g., day/night). The cultural establishment of clock time since the 13th century has not only changed social processes but also changed and extended our consciousness of time. In contrast to the experience of event time, cultural awareness of qualitatively indifferent, infi­nitely divisible time has grown through clock time, which made possible a massive economization of time with all the known accompaniments, such as lacking time and acceleration. In a media-theoreti­cal perspective, this historically indubitable finding serves as evidence for the assumption that a certain conception of time (idea of abstract linear time) depends on the invention of a medium (the clock). But whether the clock, as a “time machine” (Marshall McLuhan), can form a model for proving a media-time dependency is problematic. The ques­tion is whether a clock is a medium at all. A clarifi­cation of the relationship between time and media, and a differentiation of ideas of time using media parameters, cannot take place without a preceding differentiation of the concept of media.

Both in everyday language and in the sciences, the ways in which the term media is used are very varied and not to be subsumed under one category. If, along with the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, one pursues a very broad media con­cept, according to which media are technical inventions (artifacts), indeed artificial extensions of the human, then the clock (as a technically opti­mized form of time measurement) can also be treated as a medium. The advantages of such an approach lie in the possibility of treating very dif­ferent technical inventions (e.g., the car and the telephone) in their cultural context. The disadvan­tage of such a broad understanding is conceptual imprecision. The differentiations between medium and tool and between medium and machine remain largely unclear. How broadly one grasps the media concept ultimately depends on which questions and aims one has and which facts are relevant in an academic context. The connection between medium and time thus cannot be described gener­ally but only by considering the respective perspec- tival character. This entry distinguishes four perspectives in which the connection between tem­porality and mediality is respectively outlined.

The Media-Theoretical Perspective

Although the definition of the media concept is still quite controversial in media studies, there is none­theless widespread agreement as to what counts among the central determinations. The material and technological basis of information and com­munication processes belong essentially to medial- ity. Relevant to this, however, are not only media in the sense of equipment and its technological changes and progress but their consequences for human information and communication processes. That is, mediality encompasses both the equipmen- tal aspects of communication (in the broadest sense) and communicative practice as such.

In a media-historical perspective, significant changes in our ideas of time become clear. From a macroperspective, three phases can be distinguished above all. In a first phase, in which communication is primarily shaped by nonwritten media (gestures, voice, etc.) and ritualized oral tradition, cyclical ideas of time dominate. In the context of a culture of orality, events and series of events are largely considered as occurrences within larger cycles. In a second phase—starting with the development of phonetic writing (alphabet) in the 11th century BCE, via the invention of movable type printing in middle of the 15th century, through to writing as a mass medium since the 18th century—the idea of linearity develops into the dominant conception of time. Time is comprehended less according to the structure of cyclic recurrence and more as a linear order of the succession or sequence of events. By contrast, in a third phase—starting with the inven­tion of new communications technologies (telegra­phy and the telephone) and representational media (photography and cinematography) in the 19th and 20th centuries (radio and television in the first half of the 20th century, the computer and the Internet in the second half)—the ideas of simultaneity and nonlinear temporality develop. The transitions between these three phases are quite fluid, with overlap and interference being the norm. Already on historical grounds it is not convincing to assume, as is sometimes suggested, that different media paradigms like orality, scripturality, or digitality imply a strict difference in conceptions of time.

Whether the connection between media devel­opment (from a culture of orality, via written cul­ture, to the digital world) and a changing conception of time (from the cyclic idea of time to the idea of linearity and finally to simultaneity) is to be considered as monocausal dependency or merely as a (theoretically difficult to grasp) correlation is controversially discussed. There are different argu- ments—according to which media concept is taken as basic—for there being a connection.

  1. If one first considers media as information and communications media, then two lines of argument can be highlighted as examples using developments within writing culture. The first relates above all to the performative aspect, or the type of activities, in media use. The cultural tech­niques (writing and reading) linked with writing are shaped by the primarily linearly shaped perfor­mance of information processing. Information is here initially ordered not pictorially or sculpturally but in a strict linearity. The cultural dominance of the medium of writing and the performances linked with this forces the priority of the linearity of temporal succession (over the temporally indif­ferent division of space) in the sense of a temporal schema that regulates both the production and the reception of writing. That writing and reading are not only linear but also highly complex cognitive feats shaped by forward and backward references is not a compelling objection to the linear concep­tion of time; this complexity is rather the condition for developing an idea of linearity (cf., Edmund Husserl’s concept of retention/protention).

The second line of argument for a time-media correlation results from the observation that cer­tain media practices encourage the emergence of certain epistemic rules and systems of order. In the context of writing culture, media practices interact with the order systems of knowledge, which are characterized by essentially linear ideas of tempo­rality. For the ideas of open, transpersonal, and cross-generational development processes (i.e., not only the tradition of knowledge but also growth and progress in knowledge) are reinforced by the media production, storage, distribution, reception, and reprocessing (reinterpretation or change) of knowledge. Furthermore, the media practice of writing culture is one factor in the dominance of a model of perfectibility that is based on generally accessible and examinable (i.e., also methodically reproducible) knowledge and aims at an open, infinite progress in knowledge.

The perfectibility here ultimately lies less in what has in fact respectively been attained than in the possibility of constant improvement. Further, it is a factor in the development of a modern self-con­sciousness, which not only addresses its temporary and local environment in writing but nourishes its self-consciousness not least from the fact that as an individual it simultaneously understands itself as an expression of humanity and addresses all of posterity (“writing for eternity”). Linear concep­tions of time gain in importance both through the knowledge orders (cf., in particular the idea of encyclopaedic knowledge pursued by Diderot and others in the spirit of Enlightenment), which devel­oped in writing culture (above all after the inven­tion of movable type printing) and aimed at general comprehensibility and infinite progress, and through the individual that, so to speak, in writing comports herself toward the whole of humanity. These linear conceptions of time are not restricted to local conditions and events, or to the mere recur­rence of events, but take account of open processes and events that build upon one another. The domi­nance of a linear conception of time in the context of writing culture manifests itself particularly in the historical thinking that is typical of modernity and that has been spreading into practically all areas of knowledge since the late 18th century.

  1. Alongside the first line of argument for media-determined changes in and shaping of ideas of time, which is based on the aspect of media practices (performances) and the forms of dis­course and order systems shaped by media prac­tices, a further line of argument results when one treats media primarily as representational media and not as information and communications media. Representational media, which are distin­guished less technologically than functionally from communications media, are more precisely charac­terized by not only transmitting given (physical, biological, technological, social, or historical) information but by generating meaning or seman­tic units. In this perspective media are considered not with regard to their transmission function but with regard to their function in the production of certain contents (media contents).

Representational media (e.g., dance, music, written text, film) produce semantic units, that is, they generate individuable and reproducible com­plexes of meaning. If one focuses on the level of semantic units articulated by representational media (instead of the paths of transmission for given information and media practices), then dif­ferent (both fictional and nonfictional) temporal conditions, in part media-specific ones, can be recognized. Examples are, say, the distinction between narrative time and narrated time in litera­ture, and the possibilities for extreme time con­traction and time extension, or—partly analogous to literature—the extreme leaps in time in film though jump-cut or flashback methods. Thus well- known films such as The Matrix also show in exemplary fashion how specific forms of imagina­tion and temporal conditions can be generated through the specific representational possibilities of a medium. Think, say, of the so-called bullet time, in which natural speed conditions are sus­pended and a normally invisible bullet is slowed down extremely in its motion, becomes visible, and is overtaken or moved around by naturally much slower bodies (e.g., humans). What such examples make particularly clear is the possibility of using representational media to generate tem­poral conditions that must be considered to be naturally highly unlikely, if not even impossible. That is to say: Representational media articulate temporal relations in a manner largely indepen­dent of the basic physical beliefs that are indis­pensable in our everyday life.

At this level of consideration—the level of media-dependent and, so to speak, physics-inde­pendent semantics of imagined time constella- tions—two aspects should be emphasized: (1) First, focusing on representational media shows that cer­tain ideas of temporal processes are generated in a way dependent on representational methods and possibilities. At the semantic level, not only are established patterns of temporal information processing (according to the model of “natural” sequences of events) presented, but new “natu- rally”“meaningless,”butsemantically“meaningful” ideas of temporal arrangements are (also) gener­ated. (2) Furthermore, the representational capaci­ties of representational media permit humans a particular relationship to temporality. Using representational media, we can become aware of dimensions of time that are naturally inaccessible to us (past sequences of events or possible future scenarios). They enable us on the one hand to submerge in a past (either historical or fictive) beyond our own biographical horizon, but on the other hand they also enable us to imagine our future and to exchange views about possible future scenarios.

The particular cognitive ability of humans to process information with the help of time concepts and to comport themselves toward nonpresent events finds its adequate expression in the use of representational media: Released from what is respectively present, meaningful patterns of events are articulated in representational media, the meaning of which reaches beyond the time field of individuals. It is only through the production and storage of such semantic units that we can com­port ourselves toward the past and future inde­pendently of the narrow horizon of our own experiences (cf., for example, the mythical past articulated in the Homeric epos or in aborigines’ songs).

  1. A third line of argument for the time-media correlation relates less to systematic connections, starting from relatively broadly conceived and functionally differentiated media concepts (infor­mation and communications media, representa­tional media), and is based rather on a primarily historical and quantitatively defined class of media. Central to this are modern mass media (newspa­pers or the press, posters, radio, television, Internet) through which information can be spread in quan­titatively high numbers (in “masses”) and within a very short time. Four different aspects should be emphasized here:
  • A first temporal aspect of mass media consists in the particularly fast, tendentially synchronous informing of a large number of information receivers.
  • A further temporal aspect of mass media becomes recognizable when one considers complex com­munications situations (primarily not dialogical, but marked by feedback processes). The under­standing of information spread by mass media is essentially shaped by the demands of being up-to- date and the high frequency and fleetingness of the associated importance of information. The value of a piece of information (but also of a transmis­sion format) is here measured in terms of its up-to- dateness. The rhythm of information determined by this (e.g., periodic appearance of newspapers or magazines, continuous transmission in radio or television) and the respective program structure (e.g., news or entertainment programs) have an effect on the audience’s everyday life and feeling for time. Overall it holds that the semantics of information in the context of mass media is shaped by its specific communicative functions. The importance of information is here temporally indexed in a particular way. It is coupled to the relatively short intervals of time during which information, subjects, fashions, or program for­mats are perceived as being up-to-date.
  • A third aspect is seen in the context of electroni­cally based mass media (radio, television, Internet): News about real events, but in particular televi­sion pictures of events, is made accessible to the audience not only close to the time the events occur, as with newspapers, but instantaneously (“live”) and “in real time.” Being able to observe spatially distant events almost instantaneously through mass media is part of everyday experience these days. This fact encourages the idea (which is misleading, because it abstracts from the medium’s selective mechanisms) of being able to adopt a quasi-divine standpoint in which all events in the world can be made simultaneously accessible, independently of their spatial position.
  • A fourth aspect results from the internal tempo­rality of the basic technical processes of informa­tion transmission, which have changed significantly through progress in the history of technology. The time interval between informa­tion production and reception has constantly become shorter; information transmission is so accelerated that the transmission time is converg­ing on zero. An example of technical progress is the contrast between the sending of letters made possible by stagecoaches and the digitally based information transmission in an e-mail. The dura­tion of information transmission diverges consid­erably. Instantaneous information transmission, live programs and real time, and the ideas of time shaped by their mass-media presence here appear to be determined in equal measure by the internal temporality of the underlying technology. This fact seems to confirm a thesis that has been much discussed in media studies, namely that ideas of time might be determined by the speed of techni­cal processes. This thesis, which ultimately amounts to a medium a priori (the assumption of a medium basis that precedes, makes possible, and structurally determines our cognitive abili­ties), should however be rejected, because it starts with a very one-sided and abstract basic idea (i.e., from a media concept that lacks evolutionary and conceptual embedding; see point 2 below).

The Social-Pragmatic Perspective

In this perspective, the media-theoretically pro­pounded thesis of a medium a priori is largely retracted and relativized. As a consequence, the assumption that experience and ideas of time are primarily determined by the history of media or the respectively guiding media is no longer domi­nant. For within this perspective, the accent lies not on the technological aspect but on the aspect of the human practices in which media are func­tionally defined and embedded. Here primordial connections between human actions are the start­ing point for focusing on the dependencies between media and ideas of time. Two approaches can be distinguished here: (1) a socioeconomic approach and (2) a communications-theoretical approach.

A brief general comment beforehand: For a theory that examines human practice and the social forms shaped by this, time plays a central role—and not only because of the historical nature of these phenomena. Humans must pos­sess a concept of time so as to be able to act at all (e.g., so as to make end-means distinctions); beyond this they must possess a particular degree of time concepts (such as the differentiation of past, present, future) and be able to communi­cate these in order to act socially, that is, to be able to coordinate their actions with other agents.

Against this background, the extent to which media are an important factor precisely in a social-pragmatic perspective can be better under­stood: In order to coordinate actions socially, not only is the cognitive competence to be able to deal with temporal processes needed, but also an exchange of information between agents, in part over large temporal and spatial differences, is required. The functioning of communication between agents also depends essentially on the func­tioning of communications media and the speed of information transmission. Which actions are possi­ble and are realized also depends on how, and above all how quickly, the communicative routes run.

  1. Within a socioeconomic approach, the media­time correlation is treated above all in the context of an acceleration theorem. The sociologist Hartmut Rosa argues that we are today living in an age in which all social processes are being shaped by a ubiquitous tendency toward accelera­tion. This line of argument can initially draw sup­port from the media-theoretical finding that especially through the introduction of digital media, and that means through the detachment of information transmission from bodily media (such as postmen, for example), a maximal acceleration of data transfer has come about. But the fact is now interpreted in the context of complex social systems and leads to the thesis that technical accel­eration is embedded in different acceleration pro­cesses (acceleration of life processes as well of social and cultural changes) with in part paradoxi­cal consequences (e.g., processes slowing down as a result of maximal increase in complexity).
  2. If one advocates a stronger communications- theoretical approach, there is a shift in the lines along which problems of the media-time correla­tion are developed. Here too the question of medi- ality is embedded in a superordinate reference system. Yet it is not so much social systems that are central, but rather anthropologically founded dis­course structures that regulate communicative actions and within which meaning contexts are produced and handed on. In relation to modern media and multimedia methods of representation (especially on the Internet), the thesis of a funda­mentally altered experience of time is advanced. Various authors (the communications theorist Vilem Flusser, the sociologist Jean Baudrillard, the speed theorist Paul Virilio, the German literature and media theorist Götz Grossklaus) agree that the altered experience of time is characterized by a new primacy of the present.

There are three arguments above all that sup­port the thesis of a primacy of the present:

  • The first (media-epistemological) argument is general. (It gets by without closer differentiation of media and usually occurs in combination with other arguments.) It emphasizes that the experi­ence of time within media communication is fundamentally relative to the present. In particu­lar, the dimension of the past (e.g., certain events) as such loses importance in the context of digital media and is primarily experienced and perceived as a mode of current execution.
  • Alongside that, so to speak Augustinian and rather non-medium-specific argument, a media- ontological argument is also discussed. Starting with the media-specific network structure of communicative processes (cf., digital media, par­ticularly the Internet with its almost instanta­neous and worldwide transmission of sound, images, and/or text signs), the aspect emphasized here is that there is a tendency to synchronize spatiotemporally distant processes within such forms of communication (Niklas Luhmann, Götz Grossklaus). The primacy of the present appears in this line of argument as the primacy of simul­taneity: For the audience and agents within the network structure, the present extends into a field of the present in which remote events are synchronized within a time window (cf., the pre­ceding argument) into a media reality.
  • The third argument for the primacy of the pres­ent also has media-ontological implications. However, it focuses not on the synchronization effects of media communication but on the moDalíity of media reality for the media user (sender, receiver; information producers and con­sumers). What matters here is the conviction that in the conditions of global networking of mutu­ally independent information producers and storage, as well as communicative agents, the dominant impression for the individual agent is that of stepping into an open space of possibilities. The experience of presence here has nothing, or hardly anything, to do with the idea of a progres­sion of transient present points but rather culmi­nates in the idea of a field of the present generated by selective individual decisions and which are surrounded by an open horizon of possibilities. That is, the experience of time leads to an idea of time in which the classical directional vectors (e.g., a line of progression from the past through the present to the future) do not dominate. Rather the accent is here on an idea of time in which a field of presence is surrounded by a vari­able horizon of possibilities, that is, by the future in all directions, and in which the dimension of the past appears as a residue (lost possibilities) at most (cf., Vilem Flusser).

The Media-Philosophical Perspective

The media-philosophical treatment of the time­medium connection, the discussion of dependen­cies and fundamental changes in time experience, and the ideas of time that build on these, converge (also in authors) in part with the preceding perspectives and findings, but in part they also compete with these. In methodical and systematic respects, three media-philosophical approaches can be distinguished above all. It is true of all these media-philosophical approaches that they also pose the question of mediality in a broad frame of reference and thus develop the subject of time at a problem level that is to be respectively specified.

  1. One media-philosophical approach that is much discussed and widespread, above all in Europe, operates with fundamental assumptions about the philosophy of history and tends to teleologize media-historical changes (cf., Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, Vilem Flusser). Modern and postmodern experiences of time play a prom­inent role in this context. Starting with the basic assumption about the philosophy of history that the historical processes aiming at progress and humanity (in the spirit of Enlightenment and modernity) are being dissolved, the focus for cul­ture-critical and time-diagnostic purposes is above all on the experiences of time that speak for a negative eschatology. Here again the phenomenon of acceleration affecting all areas of life is to be mentioned in particular. In this perspective too, acceleration does not prove to be a desirable effect in reaching certain ends (e.g., acceleration of information exchange up to the speed of light) but is regarded as the signature of an overall cultural process in which the realization of human ends is structurally undermined by excessive acceleration. In conscious contrast to the assumption that a media age might bring about a free exchange of information conducive to the project of a humane world (McLuhan), here the thesis is advocated that information is obliterated by the accelerating speed of information transmission and by the excess of information in electronic media. Paul Virilio puts it pithily in an interview: “In contrast to what we are told, information in real time is not real information, but an action—like a slap in the face.”
  2. The second media-philosophical approach oper­ates meta-theoretically and with conceptual criticism—in a highly cross-disciplinary perspec­tive—analyzing the scope and coherence of media­studies theories and theses. Related to the problem of time, the central question is whether one can really infer fundamentally altered concepts of time from the media-determined development of new ideas of time. What is discussed above all are the facts that (a) time is a freely available and manipu- lable representational parameter, and (b) the respec­tively generated media reality depends on speed conditions (at the representational level or at the reception level). This approach challenges attempts to understand technical innovations and experiences of time that are in part interpreted as revolutionary (and the undoubtedly linked social changes gradu­ally taking shape in the context of action of the Internet and cyberspace)—as the basis for a “revolu­tion” in the time concept.

Against such attempts (which mostly go along with the thesis of a medium a priori) it should ini­tially be objected, with a transcendental argument, that precisely the diagnosis of new experiences of time presupposes, and precisely does not dissolve, a relatively stable concept of time (i.e., a complex of certain categorical distinctions such as before/ after, succession/simultaneity, etc.) in order to be able to register variations or changes in ideas of time. That is, as suggested, not an objection to the specifics of a media reality in which time is a freely available representational parameter leading to certain ideas of reality—in part independently of the sequence of events actually observed. Thus with TV weather forecasts, for instance, the (future) movement of weather fronts is calculated and visually simulated on the foundation of a cer­tain data basis. The future’s being visually brought to mind by simulating a complete sequence of events is a phenomenon that is just as everyday as it is interesting for the theory of science. It is, however, not yet any indication of a fundamentally altered consciousness of time.

Alongside the transcendental argument, a gene­alogical or evolutionary argument should also be asserted from a media-philosophical perspective. The assumption of a respectively media-deter­mined, uniquely new time consciousness gets caught up in inconsistencies when it is supposed to explain transitions from one paradigm medium to the next. Only in a genealogical and evolutionary consideration (i.e., one incorporating both bio­logical and cultural developments) does the origin become explicable of the foundation of cognitive abilities that are built on by the ideas of time that are respectively varied or extended by technologi­cal conditions. And only in this way can it be made plausible why, despite epochal changes in media history, we are quite able to understand past repre­sentations and time experiences—which on the assumption of strict epochal breaks would remain an explanatory gap.

In the framework of a topological analysis, in which media-theoretical theses are discussed in comparison with results from other disciplines and examined with regard to their coherence, it must further be pointed out that our media prac­tice has until now not significantly changed any­thing about evolutionary and neurally based timescales of our time window. (Neurologically speaking, perception of the present spans only about three seconds.) The assumption that media­generated time windows, or experience of the simultaneity of remote events, directly correspond to our neurologically based time window should be corrected to the extent that the concern here can be only with a structural analogy. (Also, so far it has yet to be clarified what exactly the relata— media and mental processes—are and how they are connected). In media-philosophical terms, one cannot speak of a simply quantitative extension of the time field but of qualitatively, not quantitively, extended time windows having become possible within an evolved timescale. The comparative temporality of media (cf., primacy of the present), the extension of the present (the tendency to blank out the past dimension, and the time inherent to events before their media processing) is not to be equated with a basic change in our perception of time. “Extension of the present” means more pre­cisely “conceptual extension of the present with relatively constant perception of time.”

  1. The third media-philosophical approach differs from the preceding ones—the (1) culture-critical and (2) concept-theoretical approaches—in not understanding the concept of mediality in terms of the sender-receiver model. The foundation is a deep-set (quasi-metaphysical) understanding of mediality that accentuates the significance of the “in between.” The guiding conviction in this is that the structure of mediality is to be considered as an interval structure, which cannot be reduced to the structures of subjectivity or intersubjectivity, but which rather precedes these. This conviction has been developed through engagement with the tradition of phenomenology (Husserl) and struc­turalism (Ferdinand de Saussure), particularly in postmodern French philosophy (Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard). In the con­text of this—altogether nonanthropocentric—con- cept of mediality, time is a key theorem: Time is here conceived as a dynamic structure that cannot be reduced to the sphere of cognitive competences, subjectively available parameters, or the communi­cative exchange of information.

This conception of time was most radically advocated by Derrida, who characterized media dynamics as “dead time” (De la Grammatologie), as distinct from the (metaphysical and phenome­nological) paradigms of subjectivity. Following on from this, many attempts have been made to comprehend time completely in terms of the underlying technologies (i.e., those underlying information processes; cf., Friedrich Kittler), which leads, however, to the inconsistencies of media-aprioristic approaches mentioned above. On the other hand, however, attempts have also been made to deploy this altered conception of time for the ontology of individual media with­out relapsing into a media a priori. Deleuze has carried this out in exemplary fashion for the medium of film by classifying the semantic poten­tial of film on the basis of differentiating subject­dependent (or subject-centered) representations of time and subject-independent representations of “time itself.” In so doing, he has created a thesis that the medium of film is particularly suited to the representation of temporal proc­esses. Using the history of author cinema, he has drawn attention to a transformation in the direc­tion of those temporal processes that are no longer to be comprehended via subject-centered conceptions of time.

An Outlook: Time and Media in the 21st Century

It is difficult to deny that experiences of time and ideas of time stand in a close connection with media and media practice. Yet the thesis that time must be specified using different media, and time concepts correspondingly revolutionized, is today—at the start of the 21st century—just as unconvincing as was the thesis that electricity must be differentiated into types of electricity according to the underlying substances (so that there might be, for example, a specific “resin elec­tricity”) at the beginning of the 19th century. Time is not a function of media technology. Nonetheless it is true that experiences of time vary, in part considerably, according to which media practice is individually or socially dominant. To put it in the way the social psychologist and cultural historian Robert Levine—who in view of culturally differ­ing rules of social time talks of the “language of time” having different “accents”—does, the lan­guage of time also has different idioms and accents in the history of media. But different idioms are not yet different languages. Epochal misunder­standings are likely, but the ability to understand remains fundamentally possible even with a change in media paradigms.

Since the end of the 20th century—that is, since the introduction of the Internet and the develop­ment and use of computer animations, simulators, digital movement control, and cyberspace—and increasingly with the beginning of the 21st cen­tury, new experiences of time have been taking shape that have not been empirically researched much so far. In connection with the aspects already mentioned (cf., above all the primacy of the present discussed above), the idea of virtual time presents a particular theoretical challenge. This idea is linked with the suspicion of a problematic development. For in the context of digital media, the idea of virtual time seems to be establishing itself as dominant, both in the private realm (e.g., with PC gamers) and in the socioeconomic realm (in the “global player’s” field of activity), at the cost of the idea of the time of real developments or a (biographical or sociopolitical) historical time. The much-discussed media-determined loss of reality here exhibits its time-theoretical implica­tions: Virtual time seems to contain the loss of historical time.

Virtual time means here not so much that time is a freely disposable representational parameter but rather that time is an ordering of available events. That is, the idea of virtual time is marked by the image of events being located in a possibility space and standing freely at one’s disposal. Here events do not stand under the dictate of irreversibility but are considered in the mode of “as if” and are, according to the aim, reversible. An example of this is the “dif­ferent lives” in computer games. When your own figure in the game fails (“dies”), the game doesn’t end; you simply don’t yet reach the next level. To begin with, then, an event within vir­tual time has quite different consequences for your own actions to an analogous event in real time. That is, in the extreme case, where no more action is normally possible and everything is finished, in virtual time everything can start again anew.

The flipside of such media practice is that actions within virtual time can come at the cost of actions in real time. One should not only think here of the mostly young, intensive player of online games with an endless format, whose gam­ing passion leads him to neglect to attend suffi­ciently to his “real” life. Rather one should also think of possibilities for media actions of a global player who pursues abstract profit intentions, largely unburdened by local political or social circumstances, and must pay hardly any or no attention to the “real” life of a company or a social group on the ground. The specific profit intentions lead to a strategic set of actions that is guided by a complex play of information in a glo­bal framework. Thanks to the media networking of the world, the global player acts in an endless field of options (i.e., one not limited by local conditions) in which partial failure can be com­pensated for, or even itself transformed into ele­ments of a win-win situation, by strategic turns. One of the problematic consequences of the action space created by media detachment, or the entry into virtual time, is a peculiar dissonance. The actions made possible by media (in the case of the global player, the global connection of informa­tion flows largely independent of local circum­stances; in the case of the online gamer, submergence in a virtual world and an attractive role independ­ent of the gamer’s own social role or physical constitution) adhere to a different timescale and a different future, one less rooted in the past, than actions in real time.

The tensions between actions in virtual and real time are thus also structurally determined. One of the chronopolitical tasks for the 21st century is to bring geopolitically differentiated, local timescales on the one hand and global connections (of eco­nomic processes) made possible by media on the other into a balanced relationship. Admittedly no media-philosophical solution to this problem is to be anticipated; rather it should be recalled what the examples already show: Media-based virtual time and the complex structure of real time are not two spheres that are completely independent of each other. They are conceptually linked with each other (for the virtual time of media practice can only be comprehended in contrast to certain aspects of real time, with some aspects of real time being retained, others suspended) and factually connected with each other (an action in virtual time—e.g., “occupying and defending a country”— is always a certain action in real time too—e.g., “sitting at the computer”).

Experiences at the beginning of this century have in the meantime shown that the entry into virtual time (reversible events) made possible by media does not have to mean an exit from real time (irreversible events) but is embedded in con­texts of action in which different transitions in both directions and countless functional connec­tions are to be registered. Thus in the realm of online games, it can be observed that the media practice of casual gamers or users of online forums (chat rooms) by no means have to lead to the oft- attested losses of reality. Actions in virtual time often function only as normal moments of relaxa­tion in everyday working life; sometimes they even provide possibilities to try out communicatively and to form one’s own identity beyond the often restrictive local conditions. That is, entry into vir­tual time does not have to come at the cost of time for individual development but can even benefit this. In addition, the media practice of intensive players (“heavy gamers”), for instance, shows that the entry into virtual time is by no means always completely detached from and unburdened by real economic processes.

That entry into virtual time also costs real time is a factor that is meanwhile represented within games in the form of certain advantages in the game and that leads to virtual time and real time standing in an economic relationship to one another that is no longer hidden. Players who lack the real time to work for the desired game advan­tages (the attainment of which is time-intensive) can nonetheless acquire these advantages by buy­ing these from other players who have invested enough real time to work for the advantages (at the level of virtual time).

However one evaluates these different relations (and in view of some morally and politically prob­lematic developments, one will not want to endorse them in every respect), in any case they show that theories are fundamentally too short­sighted that on the one hand reduce media-deter­mined experiences of time to the logic of the underlying media technologies and on the other hand want to capture the specificity of these expe­riences of time with strict conceptual oppositions. The undeniable connection between time and media cannot be explained through simple certainties but only by starting with sufficiently complex descriptions of the respective media practice.

Ralf Beuthan

See also Film and Photography; Information; Language;

Music; Time, Perspectives of; Timepieces; Virtual Reality

Further Readings

Baudrillard, J. (1994). The illusion of the end.

Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Crary, J. (2001). Suspensions of perception: Attention, spectacle, and modern culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Deleuze, G. (1986). Cinema 1. The movement-image (H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. (1989). Cinema 2. The time-image (H. Tomlinson & R. Galeta, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Derrida, J. (1967). Of grammatology (G. C. Spivak, Trans.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Innis, H. A. (1991). The bias of communication. Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press. (Original work published 1951)

Levine, R. (1997). A geography of time. New York: Basic Books.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

Virilio, P. (1984). Negative horizon: An essay in dromoscopy (M. Dregener, Trans.). New York: Continuum.

What do you think?

John M. E. McTaggart

John M. E. McTaggart

History of Medicine

History of Medicine