They say that there’s a brief interlude, measured in milliseconds, between the moment a thought arises in the cellular goop of our brain and the moment our conscious mind becomes aware of that thought. That gap, they say, swallows up our free will and all its attendant niceties. After the fact, we pretend that something we think of as “our self” came up with something we think of as “our thought,” but that’s all just make-believe. In reality, they say, we’re mere automatons, run by some inscrutable Oz hiding behind a synaptical curtain.
The same thing goes for sensory perception. What you see, touch, hear, smell are all just messages from the past. It takes time for the signals to travel from your sensory organs to your sense-making brain. Milliseconds. You live, literally, in the past.
Now is then. Always.
As the self-appointed chronicler of realtime, as realtime’s most dedicated cyber-scribe, I find this all unendurably depressing. The closer our latency-free networks and devices bring us to realtime, the further realtime recedes. The net trains us to think not in years or seasons or months or weeks or days or hours or even minutes. It trains us to think in seconds and fractions of seconds. Google says that if it takes longer than the blink of an eye for a web page to load, we’re likely to bolt for greener pastures. Microsoft says that if a site lags 250 milliseconds behind competing sites, it can kiss its traffic goodbye. The SEOers know the score (even if they don’t know the tense):
Back in 1999 the acceptable load time for a site is 8 seconds. It decreased to 4 seconds in 2004, and 2 seconds in 2009. These are based on the study of the behavior of the online shoppers. Our expectations already exceed the 2-second rule, and we want it faster. This 2012, we’re going sub-second.
And yet, as we become more conscious of each passing millisecond, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the fact that we’re always a moment behind the real, that what we imagine to be realtime is really just pseudorealtime. A fraud.
They say a man never steps into the same stream twice. But that same man will never step into a web stream even once. It’s long gone by the time he becomes conscious of his virtual toe hitting the virtual flow. That tweet/text/update/alert you read so hungrily? It may as well be an afternoon newspaper tossed onto your front stoop by some child-laborer astride a banana bike. It’s yesterday.
But there’s hope. The net, Andrew Keen reports on the eve of Europe’s Le Web shindig, is about to get, as the conference’s official theme puts it, “faster than realtime.” What does that mean? The dean of social omnipresence, Robert Scoble, explains: “It’s when the server brings you a beer before you ask for it because she already knows what you drink!” Le Web founder Loic Le Meur says to Keen, “We’ve arrived in the future”:
Online apps are getting to know us so intimately, he explained, that we can know things before they happen. To illustrate his point, Le Meur told me about his use of Highlight, a social location app which offers illuminating data about nearby people who have signed up for the network like – you guessed it – the digitally omniscient Robert Scoble. Highlight enabled Le Meur to literally know the future before it happened because, he says, it is measuring our location all of the time. “I opened the door before he was there because I knew he was coming,” Le Meur told me excitedly about a recent meeting that he had in the real world with Scoble.
I opened the door before he was there because I knew he was coming. I could repeat that sentence to myself endlessly – it’s that beautiful. And it’s profound. Our apps will anticipate our synapses. Our apps will deliver our pre-conscious thoughts to our consciousness before they’ve even become pre-conscious thoughts. The net will out-Oz Oz. Life will become redundant, but that seems a small price to pay for a continuous preview of real realtime.
Le Meur states the obvious to Keen:
We have “no choice but to fully embrace” today’s online products, Le Meur told me about technology which he describes as “unheralded” in history.
We’ve never had any choice. Choice is an illusion. But now, as our gadgets tap into pre-realtime on our behalf, we’ll at least know of the choice we never really made before we’ve even had the chance to not really make it. Yes, indeed. We’ve arrived in the future, and the future isn’t even there yet. But, like Scoble, it’s about to show up.
Now where the hell’s that beer?
This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.