From the May 12, 2012 closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival, a full-day event held to celebrate the work of the 2012 graduating class of the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where I teach a course called “Content Strategies.” This speech was also reprinted in Contents Magazine.
There are 200 of you in this auditorium. So every minute I don’t talk saves about three-and-a-third hours of human time. That’s a pretty serious ratio. Every one of my minutes is collectively 200 of yours.
Of course in actual time a minute is just a minute—but is this true? A minute when you’re asleep is nothing. A minute on Twitter is as many as half a million tweets. If it was your job to read them that’s a month or two of full-time work. A minute in the early days of the universe, a few million years after the big bang, is pretty much like any other minute.
I’ve been talking for around a minute now. If this speech was a century long we’d be ending the first decade. If it were the 20th century we’d be thinking about getting a telephone installed and wondering if we should trade in our horse for a car. Depending on where we lived, of course.
You know that decades are a recent invention? Decades are hardly a century old. Not the concept of having ten years of course, but the concept of the decade as a sort of major cultural unit, like when I say “the 90s” and you think of flannel shirts and grunge music and great R&B music, or when I say “the 80s” and you think of people with big hair using floppy disks. You need a lot of change for a decade to be a meaningful demarcation. Back in the 1600s they didn’t really talk about centuries as much either. It was all about the life of the king, the reign (of King James and so forth), or the era.
And then they invent clocks and clocks get cheaper and cheaper. Clocks are an amazing experience, right? Two hands, and a bell. This sense of relentless forward motion and they go in only one direction. Imagine doing user testing on clocks.
You say, “You’re a farmer—tell me about a normal day.”
And the farmer says, “Normally I wake up then depending on the month I might plant or reap the harvest.”
And you say, “How do you know what to plant?”
And the farmer says, “I’ve got this poem that we’ve been using for generations, so like, in June I mow my corn, in August I harvest my wheat with a sickle, stuff like that.”
And you’re trying to build understanding, you say, “That poem sounds really useful. But I’d like to talk about a new approach to time. What if I could divide every single day into 24 big parts called hours, and each of those into 60 little parts called minutes? So now instead of having just a whole day, you have 1,440 little pieces of time and you can arrange them and do whatever you want. What is your reaction to that?”
And I think the farmer would probably be polite but I’m guessing he’d be thinking, “Clock? That’s the single stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
There’s a great book called The Soul of a New Machine, about what it takes to build a computer. It came out in 1981. And one of the engineers was talking about nanoseconds. That’s one billionth of a second. So instead of 1,440 minutes in a day you have 86 trillion, 400 billion nanoseconds in a day. Here’s one of the engineers talking:
I feel very comfortable talking in nanoseconds. I sit at one of these analyzers and nanoseconds are wide. I mean, you can see them go by. “Jesus,” I say, “that signal takes twelve nanoseconds to get from there to there.” Those are real big things to me when I’m building a computer. Yet when I think about it, how much longer it takes to snap your fingers, I’ve lost track of what a nanosecond really means.” He paused. “Time in a computer is an interesting concept.”
So it’s only a few hundred years ago that people started to care about centuries, and then more recently, decades. And of course hours and minutes. And in the last 40 years we’ve got 86 trillion nanoseconds a day, and a whole industry trying to make every one of them count.
If this speech was 20 years long then, right now, AltaVista would be the dominant search engine, and AOL and Yahoo! would be the most important sites on the web.
This is also from The Soul of a New Machine: One of the engineers in the book burned out and quit and he left a note that read: “I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.”
And the thing that strikes me there is that he wasn’t just going to Vermont. He was going somewhere where time was different. He was going to get away from minutes, hours, days. He was back to seasons. Which is actually where the farmer, the medieval farmer, spent most of his time, thinking about what to plant when. Figuring out the seasons was basically what made the agricultural revolution possible.
I’ve been thinking a lot about trending topics on Twitter. And it seems like trending topics serve the same function as decades, except they last a couple of hours or a day at most. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the Fitbit and the quantified self movement, where people track every step and count up the things they eat. And it seems like the quantified self movement is about our relationship with time, about the fact that we don’t know how much we exercised or what we ate, we can’t really perceive ourselves mechanically and in a world where there are so many units of time all at once, where there are so many timeframes. It’s really easy to lose track of when you are. Many of our interfaces are really just ways to try to repackage time so that it’s meaningful, so that we can do stuff with it. It’s not that there isn’t enough time but rather that there’s too much of it.
If this speech were a century long we’d be getting out of World War II right now.
The other day I had just left home and I was walking down the street and there was a breeze through the trees, this note of cold, and I realized that I couldn’t tell whether we were headed into fall or into summer. I had lost track. And it was a great moment. I was incredibly happy to not know. I held on to it. And I noticed that I didn’t think of the question in terms of the calendar. I thought of it like this: What direction are we going? Are we going winterwards or springwards? And then finally my brain caught up and said, we’re headed towards summer. And you really need to go buy some new shirts.
If this speech were a decade long we’d be just swearing in George W. Bush for his second term.
The things we’ve been doing with all those nanoseconds have been frankly weird. There are so many of them—it’s like some sort of hyperinflation, but with time. So how do you spend nanoseconds? If you have trillions of them to spend you use them for all sorts of stuff. You add shadows under windows to give the illusion of depth. You make it possible for someone to watch a streaming movie in one window while they write a computer program in another. You let people do a lot of stuff at once, and you make the machine do a lot of stuff at once in the background. You keep things moving.
If this speech were only a minute long it would have been over five minutes ago at least.
That’s why we’re here, in this auditorium, right? All this capacity in the world and we’re trying to figure out how to use it. It feels like it should be easy, given how powerful technology is, given the resources available to us. It feels like interaction design should be a solved problem by now. After all we have these amazing tools. Except of course it’s nowhere near done.
I bet—I’m talking here to the graduate students who just received their MFAs—I bet most of you at some point during your thesis thought, Oh God, I might die before this is over. What if I don’t make it? Who will finish my project? But let me make this very clear to you: You didn’t die. Your project did not kill you, and now it’s done.
I can never remember if we are supposed to live each day as it were our last, or if it’s the first day of the rest of our lives. It’s hard to tell sometimes. We make movies about it over and over again. The Bucket List and Terms of Endearment and so on. Or even zombie movies. And the core assumption of those movies is usually that your life is kind of inconsequential up until that moment, that now you’re going to learn what really matters. Of course these movies are made by people who are totally dedicated to making films. They give up their lives and neglect their children to make movies about the value of family.
If this speech was as long as the universe is old the earth would just be forming right now.
My wife’s cousin is sick. She’s in her 50s, and she’s doing okay now but she knows with a pretty good degree of certainty that she won’t live more than a few years. She sends out emails to keep us all informed. And what she’s doing with her time is learning math. She has a tutor and she’s starting with algebra. Because she always wanted to be good at algebra, and she sucks at it. And she’s really enjoying that.
And that makes sense to me. Of course, you’d want to learn math. If you told me that I was going to die in a couple of years, I would pretty much do what I’m doing. I’ve got this one interaction that I keep prototyping in my head, about organizing objects on a timeline, and so I’d probably hire someone to help me turn it into a product and make sure it was released, at least open-source it. I’d try to learn grammar, I’d spend time with my family, and I’d prototype my interactions. And I’d do some user testing. Because even if you are dying you should still do user testing.
If this speech was a century long, disco would be huge right now.
The only unit of time that matters is heartbeats. Even if the world were totally silent, even in a dark room covered in five layers of foam, you’d be able to count your own heartbeats.
When you get on a plane and travel you go 15 heartbeats per mile. That is, in the time it takes to travel a mile in flight your heart beats 15 times. On a train your heart might beat 250 times per mile.
And we count this up and we make sense of it. We’re constantly switching accelerations; we’re jumping between time frames. That’s what we’re asking people to do every time we make something new, some new tool or product. We’re asking them to reset their understanding of time. To accept that the sequence we’re asking them to follow is the right way to do a thing. It’s like the farmer with the clock.
If this speech was a millennium long then right now the first smallpox vaccinations would be going on in England, and a society to oppose vaccination was being established in Boston. That was in the late 1700s, although smallpox wouldn’t be officially eradicated until 1979.
The sensible thing for a keynote speech like this is for me to get up and talk about your time, about how to value it. And you might think that’s what I’ve been doing. But it’s not. I don’t worry much about your personal particular time. You’re free; go forth and do what you want. You’re getting these graduate degrees, you are people of skill and privilege, you are people with gifts. There is a poem by Raymond Carver called “Late Fragment.” It goes like this:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
And listen, trust me, even if you do not feel that way at the end of these years, even if you are feeling burned out and done with the vagaries of social user design interaction universal community-driven agile information experience, even if you are ready to close your laptop screen forever, you are beloved on the earth. You are skilled and talented and young and bright and accredited. The world wishes it were you.
When I look out at this room I see a comparatively small number of faces but I also see a trillion heartbeats. Not your own heartbeats, but those of your users. The things that you build in the next decade are going to cost people, likely millions of people, maybe a billion people depending on the networks where you hitch your respective wagons, they are going to cost a lot of people a lot of time. Trillions of heartbeats spent in interaction.
If this speech were a century long Clinton would have just been elected president.
And that’s my point, and it’s a simple point. The time you spend is not your own. You are, as a class of human beings, responsible for more pure raw time, broken into more units, than almost anyone else. You spent two years learning, focusing, exploring, but that was your time; now you are about to spend whole decades, whole centuries, of cumulative moments, of other people’s time. People using your systems, playing with your toys, fiddling with your abstractions. And I want you to ask yourself when you make things, when you prototype interactions, am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? Am I going to help someone make order in his or her life, or am I going to send that person to a commune in Vermont?
There is an immense opportunity—maybe it’s even a business opportunity—to look at our temporal world and think about calendars and clocks and human behavior, to think about each interaction as a specific unit, to take careful note of how we parcel out moments. Whether a mouse moving across a screen or the progress of a Facebook post through a thousand different servers, the way we value time seems to have altered, as if the earth tilted on its axis, as if the seasons are different and new.
So that is my question for all of you: What is the new calendar? What are the new seasons? The new weeks and months and decades? As a class of individuals, we make the schedule. What can we do to help others understand it?
If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats—if we are going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?
If this speech was as long as this speech it would be over.