What realtime is before it’s realtime

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.

10 thoughts on “What realtime is before it’s realtime

  1. Eric Lacosse

    No choice but to outsource my pre-conscious to that of a computer? So this is how the machines finally take us over…

    In the meantime, I’ll be making sure all my apps are “nerd rapture ready” and go manually fetch a few of my own beers while they update.

  2. Yves Trlt

    Quoting Le Meur …

    This for sure is quite real time in terms of thoughts, as if anything was new there, r if there were anything.

    Meanwhile even if technology accelerates enourmously the information moving around and its volume, technology itelf doesn’t evolve that quikly, due to its own weight as much as anything else, the book of technology being a slow evoving book more than anything accelerating the rest.

    As to this “events based” kind of philosophy, very first wittgenstein.

    Anyway, this is going to change soon for very banal reasons as well, especially due to :


  3. CS Clark

    Opening doors in advance? Computers saying ‘Pint of the usual guv?’ Pfft. In the future, I won’t have to read anything Scoble writes because it will be easily predictable. And I will already know what my response to reading anything by Scoble will be. Hint: it’ll involve something stiffer than a beer.

  4. Nick Carr

    In the future, the pint glass will be web-enabled, and in return for allowing it to collect data (frequency of sip, volume of sip, etc.) the beer will be supplied for free. That’s my vision.

  5. Isaac Garcia

    This is a sad, sad, sad, sad use for tech. I know Nick is joking around….sort of.
    But this is just sad that people are excited about this.

  6. Frank

    I agree with Nick as we all are heading towards the latest apps and making our life miserable, but in a sense we all are running in the rat race but forgetting that even if we win the race we will still be rat. We need to take time and ponder about this.

  7. Brutus

    This post had the potential to be philosophically interesting, considering how perceptual/cognitive delays transform free will into a chimera. But then it collapsed into the usual gushing (but with irony, which I guess makes it even hipper and better) about how full-on integration with our machines will define the world. In a way, we’ve been there for a long time already, once the telegraph established then radio, telephone, TV, etc. each reinforced the sense of simultaneity, where things remote and distant were brought to hand, at least in their epistemological sense. More to the point, however, who really believes that the really, truly good life — the one so much better than we now have — awaits us when doors are opened automatically and pints of beer await? That’s just the show distracting us. Real life is lived differently, namely, by being present, which every child knows but is taught to forget by late adolescence (or sooner).

  8. martin english

    At first, I saw this as a bit of a piss-take; i.e. Write up some meaningless b/s to fulfill you posting schedule. Unfortunately, from some of the reaction I’ve seen, a lot of people ARE taking this seriously. Admittedly, I do see the benefit of knowing if Scoble was the other side of a closed door (especially since I thought he was dead), but thats what peep holes are for….

    Now, 30 or 40 years ago, carrying a pager meant you were important, 10 or 15 years ago carrying a mobile phone meant you were important. Now when I go out for dinner, to a certain
    style of restaurant, with a certain style of clientele, the only person who answers a phone (at least, one that rings during the meal) is the most junior person there. And they may be responsible for up to a dozen or 18 phones during the meal. The guy with those status symbols from last century is now responsible for preventing them from annoying the owners of those phones….

    I see a certain similarity with what you describe above kind; once this real time world becomes ubiquitous, then going off line, the ability to stay off line without loosing touch, will become the new status symbol.

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