Realtime kills real space

I’m starting to think we may need a new Einstein.

In a comment on my earlier realtime post, David Evans observed: “A realtime system for connecting humans to each other in surprising and free-form ways is a park bench. Pity that when two people sit down on a park bench these days, they are more likely to be twittering via 3G than talking to each other.”

I was reminded of a haunting passage in a recent New Yorker article about the boom in Japanese cellphone novels:

A government survey conducted last year concluded that eighty-two per cent of those between the ages of ten and twenty-nine use cell phones, and it is hard to overstate the utter absorption of the populace in the intimate portable worlds that these phones represent. A generation is growing up using their phones to shop, surf, play video games, and watch live TV, on Web sites specially designed for the mobile phone. “It used to be you would get on the train with junior-high-school girls and it would be noisy as hell with all their chatting,” Yumiko Sugiura, a journalist who writes about Japanese youth culture, told me. “Now it’s very quiet—just the little tapping of thumbs.”

Realtime, you see, doesn’t just change the nature of time, obliterating past and future. It annihilates real space. It removes us from three-dimensional space and places us in the two-dimensional space of the screen – the “intimate portable world” that increasingly encloses us. Depth is the lost dimension.

Since we need a word to describe this new kind of space, I’m going to suggest “realspace,” which ties together nicely with “realtime.” What we need now is an overarching theory to describe how realtime and realspace come together to form, well, a realtime-realspace continuum. What are the laws that govern existence in realtime-realspace? What’s it like in there?

UPDATE: Adds Rob Horning: “We know what gets us into realspace; it seems to me a continuation of the space of consumerism—of impulsiveness, instrumentality, convenience for its own sake, and ersatz individualism. And obviously it is not just going to go away. We are all complicit in it, eventually. At some point it suits our purposes and we go along, as though we control the terms by which we interact with it. We don’t notice the creeping ways in which it begins to dictate terms to us.”

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

10 thoughts on “Realtime kills real space

  1. Tom Lord

    Universal near-complete-detachment will certainly breed parasites. It’s “soma,” at last.

    Systems of obtaining some version of enlightenment (presence, groundedness, acceptance and participation in detail – living in “real [space] *” – forever struggling against illusion) — forever those have described a 3-way power-struggle between the “generally good and at least correctable” and “the evil and encouragable” and the (largest demographic) “living in the illusion hoi poloi”.

    The new inter-inter-mediated reality (intermediating commerce layered over intermediating networks) is doing little more than installing contentious points of centralized control over hoi poloi for the “enlightened” to battle over.

    It’s all a bit of a bother, really. I mean, here I am wondering why my neighborhood can’t organize to scatter temporary raised-bed gardens around the ‘hood for improved food security into 2010 and there’s all the big money asking questions like “will facebook’s redesign win or flop” or “what are the right terms of service for a user-supplied genetic sequence tied to medical health records?”


  2. Seth Finkelstein

    “What’s it like in there?”

    It’s a strange, scary place, that no one middle-aged or older can ever hope to comprehend, a foreign land where those rotten kids do things their elders did not, and thus must be degenerate (it’s changing their minds! Their very BRAINS!). Oh, whatever will become of the youth of today?

  3. Tom Lord


    I’m middle-aged. And I live in the SF Bay Area so where the hippest, smartest, trend-leading kids are? They’re my neighbors.

    I think they’re doing well. I think there’s a good chance. I think they’re using the tech very well. Of course, my neighbors use it a bit – mainly for money – but mostly ignore most of it. They are much more local and real space and real time. So, it’s weird — through all of the layers and layers of BS that we “in industry” have put on it to veil it in illusion — they seem to “get” the Internet for just about what it is, as far as it matters to them.

    This ain’t like what you’re saying. It’s got nothing to do with that.


  4. Ivo Quartiroli

    I am buying a house in a village in the Appennines mountains with some land annexed. As it often happens in those mountain areas, the properties are broken up into small portions which reflect the complicated hereditary and family lines, where every single small piece of land has its own identity. The fields’ names vary: sometimes they refer to events which happened there, or to the characteristics of the territory, and there are funny and odd names as well.

    Every field has its own personality through its name, its own history, its own micro-“genius loci,” which was known and experienced by the local population. But not anymore. The names and their locations in the territory are vague memories of some elderly people of the village. Google Earth will not be able to track down their names, but even in that case they would be like names on the tombstones, emptied of their souls.

    Al Gore’s father promoted the American highway system, and his son became one of the greatest promoters of information highways. As highways place everybody in car boxes, the Internet has placed us in front of a screen, mostly indoors at home or in an office.

    The Internet nd mobile technologies are acting on the territory on another level: more than digitalizing it and distancing us from it, they are bringing us in front of a screen, making territory useless. We can operate on our bank account from the screen, we can do our shopping, communicate with our friends, search for our soulmate or for a sexual meeting, and work on the Net for many traditional jobs which have been brought to the Internet and for numerous new professions born from the Net itself.

    In a territory which has lost its soul, its history and even our attention, GPS systems tell us continously where “we are.” Being alien from the territory creates a lack of direction which we try to compensate for with a digital measurement of our “presence.” But the lack of direction takes place on an inner level since we became alien to the territiry. Interesting subject to explore, I’ll write an article out of this.

  5. dubbin

    Context: I read this directly after danc’s excellent post at Lost Garden about the many styles of game design.

    An organizing principle of his essay is that there are many varieties of games, each of which has its limitations, but each of which, properly executed, can also present a viable means of interacting with a world and space that is not, per se, real.

    There is a fuzzy feeling that bubbles up in people my age when they read posts like this that cite games like Monkey Island as viable examples of interactions like this. We grew up supplementing our real-world experiences with fake-world experiences that somehow felt more real for the fact that we were exerting some influence on them. Nowadays, that’s garden-variety interactivity and it’s deployed by everything from American Idol to Coca-Cola’s corporate website. Back then it felt like we were getting away with something.

    Physically, we sat in front of our PCs and didn’t move much. Mentally, we were elsewhere. I would argue that the Silent Trains of Japan are an expression, years later, of this same phenomenon — just filtered down into interfaces that are less scarce than computers capable of running SCUMM games were in the mid 1990s.

    There is a definite pleasure in this kind of withdrawal, and that makes it the kind of thing that societies and communities will gravitate toward, especially if spurred on by technology that makes it more available. And I won’t argue the point that there is something lost when people who share the same physical space can distract themselves from having their experience of that space mediated by the simultaneous presence of other human beings.

    But I’m not sure I can agree that what’s lost when that happens is depth. There is depth in those situations, and it is profound, but it is individual rather than conventionally social. There is drama in those situations and there are relationships and there are stakes, but they are playing out in a mental space of more than two dimensions, belonging to person whose mind has been conditioned to believe that it is more fertile and imaginatively powerful than a subway car.

  6. Nick Carr

    Seth: I’m not talking about kids. You’re riding your hobbyhorse too hard. It’s in a lather. Nick

  7. Nick Carr

    here I am wondering why my neighborhood can’t organize to scatter temporary raised-bed gardens around the ‘hood

    Tom: have you considered flash-mobbing? Nick

  8. Seth Finkelstein

    Forgive me, Nick, when you quoted a long passage (not your writing, I know, but still much of the post) full of “… between the ages of ten and twenty-nine … A generation is growing up … a journalist who writes about Japanese youth culture …”, I assumed we were down a well-trod path.

  9. Tom Lord

    Nick: Yeah, damn sure I have. No, really.

    Not via the Intertubes – the street channels are a pump primed for it by analog channels and I have a toe-hold on access to those organizing channels.

    But I’m not going to waste my brothers’ and sisters’ time on any “supposedly good idea” that goes nowhere. I mean, if we just take “direct action” to set up emergency gardens without entirely proper respect for property rights the odds are we get forcibly shut down (even in Berkeley) before we get to a demonstrated benefit.

    Flash-mobbery (abstracted away from the internet) is a dime-a-dozen play, around these parts — but I (or any other, would be, town crier) get but one shot to prove our leadership potential.

    I hesitate, in the current situation I see and personally enjoy because I don’t want to waste that shot. I call upon those of my colleagues who are upper class and who grok the real [space] situation to assure me I’ve got some back-up, for one thing. The plan still needs some working out (though time is running out). Insurance, so to speak, is needed. Who has my back?


  10. Some Random Nerd

    “Realspace” feels like a denigration of the very real people, interactions and events that happen online.

    The difference between on and offline isn’t about real and virtual, digital and analogue, or anything exemplified by an Internet-related buzzword. It’s about being anchored to our brain and body that we have to carry around.

    So I propose the term “meatspace.” Because that’s where you “really” meet people, and is the root of how you can trust that somebody really is who they say they are.

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