Waiting for Instantaneity

1In "Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!", Paul Virilio claims that telecommunications are ushering in the "invention of a perspective of real time" which results in "some kind of choking of the senses, a loss of control over reason". As users of this new technology, as the receptors of the stream of computer-mediated information, we need to figure out the terms and conditions of our acceptance of cyberspace as a space and realtime as a form of time, to understand the implications of this new mode of communication, for "no information exists without dis-information".

2In "Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!", Paul Virilio claims that telecommunications are ushering in the "invention of a perspective of real time" which results in "some kind of choking of the senses, a loss of control over reason". As users of this new technology, as the receptors of the stream of computer-mediated information, we need to figure out the terms and conditions of our acceptance of cyberspace as a space and realtime as a form of time, to understand the implications of this new mode of communication, for "no information exists without dis-information".

3Even Virilio proclaims apocalyptically that "our history will happen in universal time, itself the outcome of instantaneity -- and there only". In fact, time also governs narrative choices: their availability, viability, desirability, relevance. Despite the hype surrounding the instantaneity of virtual travel, narrative in cyberspace is inherently subordinate to connection speed and loadtime. This is why the "loading screen" has become the standard welcome on Shockwave-heavy sites, developing into a kind of mini-genre of low-bandwidth animation. The possiblity of using temporality as a narrative catalyst has been exploited in cinema, as in classic Hollywood dissolves and fades. Metaphors of the passing of time are a familiar cliche: the pages of a daily calendar fluttering away, the changing of the seasons. Stanley Kubrick's bold cut from a spinning bone to a space station in orbit in 2001: A Space Odyssey is an extreme and unusual example of this sort of metaphor. These all function as temporal ellipses.

4The passage of time can also function as plot, as in Warhol's Blow Job and Richard Linklater's Slacker, both of which are ostensibly about merely the passage of time. Slacker lacks a traditional narrative and instead progresses through a series of vignettes, each one following seemingly random characters through seemingly random events (an idea developed further by the recent Magnolia). The change from one vignette to the next is motivated simply by the camera's movement from one character or event to another. The camera is like a nosy passerby, a voyeur, showing noncommittal interest in one thing, then another, and the viewer must give up interest in each vignette without the satisfaction of narrative closure. As the filmmaker tells the cabdriver in the beginning, each turn of events, each decision made, results in all possibilities going on to live out their potential realities. We, the viewers, in turn, follow the camera's gaze with the frustrating knowledge that other, unresolved realities are continuing without that gaze. The recent Timecode uses the same hypertext-type approach with four simultaneous screens, each a single shot capturing one part of an interlocked world. These are all extreme, overt examples of Deleuze's time-image.

5Online, similar moves have been made in Mark Napier's Shredder and Maciej Wisniewski's Netomat interfaces. Both function as alternatives to conventional browsing, Netomat even labelled an "anti-browser" that engages "an Internet that is an intelligent application and not simply a large database of static files".

6The above-mentioned devices for manipulating the perception and understanding of time as represented in film (fade, dissolve, et al.) exploited an inherently filmic problem: simply put, that there is a serious discrepancy between time as it happens and its perception, much like the time it takes to enjoy a Website's multimedia content and the length of its download. In the case of the fade, for instance, an inherent problem of the medium has been internalised in a non-transparent way and used overtly to further the narrative meaning. Likewise, the "loading screen" offers a morsel of content typically focussed on its function ("loading... 5 seconds to go..."). The existence of these filmic conventions makes us aware of when they are broken, as in the "realtime" films Nick of Time, Blow Job, and Timecode, and also in instances of extended time, as in the classic shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho. Think, too, of the last time you had to wait before you saw any of a Website's content.

7Just as filmic time is typically compressed for the sake of appearing real, navigational movement on the Web is in fact constrained while seeming free, and delayed while seeming instantaneous. The promise of instant access has instead been fulfilled by erratic connection speeds and server problems. Because Web time ostensibly passes almost in an instant (this is, after all, the industry in which a product might become passé while still at the beta phase), information ages just as quickly: "404 File not found" is a familiar sight, telling us that the link we followed may have been coded, not last year, but maybe even last week, or yesterday. Information loses relevance, even disappears, often in no time at all. These problems have been exploited by JODI, whose experimental online work foregrounds the nuts and bolts (and kinks) of the Web, instead of hiding it beneath a clean "other" design. The desirability of information over time is also the focus of Rhizome's Starry Night interface which, utilizing Java, shifts over time to emphasise popular links, eventually eradicating unpopular ones.

8In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin writes that "even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be" (220). But what of the Web art project, whose existence on a server somewhere does not need to be known for the work to be understood, whose duplication yields a copy that is indistinguishable from the original? What of the work that is both static and temporal, which is inherently mediated through time, including time (as in server and connection speed) which cannot be completely accounted for by the author? He goes on to say that technical reproduction "enables the original to meet the beholder halfway" (220), but what is the Website's point of departure? Its creator's computer? The server on which it lives? The end user's computer? How can we map the path from the "original" to its "reproduction" when the two are indistinguishable, when, in fact, there is no confirmable original?

9As if in response to Benjamin, Paul Virilio writes in "Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!" that "the specific negative aspect of these information superhighways is precisely this loss of orientation regarding alterity (the other), this disturbance in the relationship with the other and with the world". Virilio is concerned with the problem of orientation, that is, of the lack of geographical, historical, and temporal specificity and point of reference when experiencing a Web-based narrative. Compare that to Deleuze's claim that, in the time-image, "the brain has lost its Euclidean co-ordinates, and now emits other signs" (278), a notion similar to the "loading screen", a bit of content which exists merely to inform that content is forthcoming. Virilio sees this as a crucial problem facing us today and adds that "there is talk of substituting the term 'global' by 'glocal,' a concatenation of the words local and global".

10The Internet yields both seeming temporal instantaneity and spatial compression. We can be everywhere all at once, all the time; but what of the inevitable slippage of time involved? The World Wide Web has created a life of dead moments, of moments spent waiting for the instantaneous to happen.