Will Digitization Change Your Perception Of Time?

Kai Goerlich

The Internet of Things will connect many more devices and objects to the Internet. The latest  assumption by Intel shows that we might have approximately 200 billion things connected in 2020. Very soon we will network things around us that have been seen as purely physical and non-digital, like the espresso machine, the toaster, bikes, beds, musical instruments, and even animals. How might we use all this information?

As human beings we are experiencing and acting within the limits of our biology, more or less adapted to our environment. Modern technology might expand our humanness beyond those limits and erase the boundaries between ourselves and our tools. Many people are already experimenting with cyborging, also called trans-humanism, either restoring a former lost body function or enhancing their abilities by integrating an artificial component or technology. But we don’t have to get into cyborging yet, as the sheer number of network objects might already change the experience of the world around us significantly in the next decade.

Time: neural construct or reality?

One of our most subjective experiences is time. Our languages mirror that: We get lost in time; time flies; we try to save or to find time just before we run out of it. Obviously, time is a highly personal and overall controversial experience, despite the fact that many scientists and philosophers before us explored time already.

In classical philosophical thinking, time is defined as something that happens in the inner world of an individual only as a construct of his thoughts, which would make time an illusion. According to Einstein, on the other hand, time is part of space-time and one of the most important concepts of modern physics. And some scientists think that we should get rid of time and treat it as part of a psychological frame in which we experience material changes in space. Philosophers such as Yvonne Förster-Beuthan, a professor at Leuphana University in Germany, follows a different thought in her latest book on the experience of time and ontology, claiming that time emerges within the interaction of a subject and an object.

Think of time as something like color. Color is not there so that we see the green of leaves, but because there is chlorophyll so that plants can use sunlight. But it needs some biosensors in our eyes to capture the light and some neurons to come up with the interpretation of a color. The same might be true for time: It is an interpretation based on a real interaction, or rather entanglement, between a subject and an object. Therefore experience of time within the digitalized world can vary with our relationship to technology.

Time is culturally coded

Why is that argument important for us? Most of our modern societies are very time-oriented and depend on a common experience of time, like the structure we give our days by defining work, dinner, and leisure time and how we plan the future. But how we experience time in various situations is very different from culture to culture (see chart). The time concepts of the Western world are following a linear idea, also called monochromic view, with the past behind and the future before us, a view that is not necessarily shared by all. In the Asian Buddhist culture, a lunar orientation is more common, with on average shorter months that many other modern societies are used to. Some cultures, such as the Hopi Nation, seem to have a very different idea of time with a lesser distinction between past and now. And as we know, timeliness is very diverse as well.timing

Time management or managed by time?

What may happen in our networked world is a dissolution of not only the different cultural concepts but our own personal time experience by modern media. Individual time management is one of the bigger requirements in modern information technology. We simply need to deal with more information and we have to act on various levels simultaneously. As Förster-Beuthan points out, it is now a wonder that under those conditions we subjectively feel an acceleration of time. We now can participate in events around the globe nearly without delay, which gives us the feeling of a real, and real-time, experience. She thinks that time will be increasingly experienced “thicker” or “deeper” as the hyperconnected world with all its devices enables us to get access to information from various layers of time; history, present, and simulations of the future all in parallel.

Of course, due to our cultural background we might not able to cope with those perceptions, running into a cognitive overkill. But Förster-Beuthan believes that our brains have sufficient neural plasticity to evolve with our technology. Pointing to gamers – who play on a level of interaction that most of us are simply unable to – she expects that augmented reality will allow us to perceive the flow of time very differently.  For the moment, we can’t think of perceiving different layers of time simultaneously, but that may change in the future.

As more connected things give us more information and input, we may adopt a different meaning of time. Let’s hope that all those connected objects will free up enough time to offer more leisure as well.

How will our increasingly connected world change the way we live? See Big Data, The Internet Of Things, And The Fourth V.


Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network. His specialties include competitive intelligence, market intelligence, corporate foresight, trends, futuring, and ideation. Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.