On Real and Unreal Time
“(W)e are living a fusion of real and unreal time, an ongoing undulation of overlays and intersections…It’s most like the way good old-fashioned thinking and imagining work in relation to sensing and perceiving … It says that back before representational technologies developed, before literacy itself, people were also living in a fusion of real and unreal time because they were daydreaming while they were doing this or that. Just having a mind is to be in unreal time as well as in real time … What that says is that representational technologies have colonized our minds … To the extent that our thoughts no longer wander around on their own, stocked only with materials drawn from direct experience, to the extent that they follow flows of representations instead–to just that extent that we don’t think our own thoughts. Literally…
When the term first arose, “real-time” implied speed, intensified velocity. The medium doing the representing was transforming reality into representation immediately. The expression was first used in connection with digital processing of information … It was a term of praise that focused on how fast a computer could record the file transaction as compared with paper-shuffling clerks. It wasn’t until the fact that computers could keep up with events was taken for granted that we noticed that security cameras in public places were real-time media too. And nothing seems slower than those! How strange. Why is that? No editing. No manipulation of what is presented.
In the same way, an innovation like videoconferencing could surprise us with a real-time capacity that the telephone had all along. But we only noticed that a lot of analog media were in real time after computers achieved sufficient processing speed to do it too. It was the malleability of digital transformations that made the difference. The fact that we could now manipulate what had once just been conveyed on a screen or over a wire, that’s what go the juices going. That’s why “interactive” became the mother of all buzz words. The idea that real time emerged when we became players on screens we had once viewed passively. The fusional loop of subject-object that is a video games expresses most cogently the thrill of real-time existence in unreal realms. You tweak the joystick and press the buttons and virtual swords flash and machine guns blaze in some tunnel on asteroid in a distant galaxy–not as a result of, but as a function of, at the same time as, your fingers on the console. You exist as agent and instrument simulateously in two places, in the meat world of fingers and consoles and the virtual world of cyborg warriors. Representational being incarnate. The primordial aim of the human imagination realized–literally “made real.
So “real time” is a compliment we pay to representations that reflect our agency either directly or in the way they conform to our designs subsequently … Incidentally, remember when people thought that the Web was going to build bridges between communities and inspire cross-cultural understanding, etc.? … The multiplication of niches has been so intense that the word fragmentation doesn’t begin to describe it. What with these search worms and filters and custom advertising hooking you up with stuff you’re already interested in … you can spend your whole life online and never leave your own head.” From Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It by Thomas De Zengotita.