Presence and the Present: Subjective Temporalities and Flow on the Internet

In the age of the Internet, networked individuals find that their lived time is spent more and more often consuming online content, with the only break from browsing sessions finding form in slow loading times or mandatory advertisement viewing. The measurement of an online time, beyond strictly content duration, has run into difficulties as the temporality of computer-mediated makes such a concept difficult to define in the first place. Efforts to create an Internet time zone have focused purely on a conversion to a universal measurement that is applicable to real world, international environments. This is perhaps most well-known in Swiss watch company Swatch’s creation of the Swatch Internet Time (SIT), a time model that follows the decimal-based system inspired by the proposed (and failed) French revolutionary clock (Lee & Liebenau, 2000). In SIT, the twenty-four hour day is divided into one thousand ‘.beats’, each made up of about one minute and twenty-six seconds, with the marking of time delineated with an @ (such as “meet me at @604”). This system would do away with the need for time zones in planning international online events (such as the streaming of a broadcast) as everyone regardless of location could set their Swatch watches for a certain beat-time.

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The concept was, predictably, unsuccessfully implemented for several reasons and not only due to the commercialized branding and odd punctuation indicating its unit. Not only would it be impractical and difficult to convince the entire online user base to swiftly adopt a new type of time structure, but a Gregorian-like time model simply does not account for the complexities in temporality online. Anyone engrossed in their browsing habits for work, research, or leisure can find time slipping away from their perceivable attention, as what may seem like an hour of reading Wikipedia or watching YouTube videos can actually turn out to be several when one finally remembers to glance at the time. Certainly SIT was simply trying to unite the global village of the Internet under one clock, but quantifiable time finds itself at odds with the disassociation of the ‘here and now’ of media consumption when one is fully immersed in a world without a beginning or end point; such is the prime characteristic of absent-minded or boredom-induced Internet browsing and the production of ‘click bait’ content that can draw users in for hours, generating valuable advertisement revenues for large global marketing companies.

This paper is concerned with the contrasting temporalities between on-and-offline living. It questions the meaning of time in an activity where logical systems of tracking time are lost. Furthermore, it seeks to understand how these liminal temporalities effect larger socioeconomic structures and consumer activity. My argument will focus on three areas: the experience of flow in Internet immersion, the application of Husserl’s inner time-consciousness in creating online user narratives, and how consumerist practices rely on these phenomena in increasing user retention and advertising engagement. In following these lines of thought, it will be posited that the influence of the Internet requires new understandings of a temporality that adjusts capitalist time measurement into a more fluid state, gaining strength through a compression of time rather than strict delineation of societal time blocks that are followed.

Online Flow

Much can be said about the Internet’s influence on society and indeed much has already been said, as it shifts from a novel innovation of the information age to a naturalized component in our cultural landscape. In lieu of an exhausting and widespread overview of our always-online lifestyle, some general statements can be made in order to guide this discussion.

First, traditional communications media, such as television, telephony, and print media, in addition to service industries such as retail and banking, have all been reshaped by the Internet, creating new products and services that shift our daily lives to a primarily online state. Second, the number of Internet-enabled devices at our disposal has increased dramatically over the past decade. Between laptops, tablets, smart phones, and many other gadgets, one can always be within arm’s reach of their email (quite literally in the smart watch’s case). Third, these two characteristics of an Internet-based society have altered the temporal perceptions of its user base, which influences the design of online content. There is, of course, no single story of the changes that people have experienced due to the Internet and vice versa, but such trends can generally be observed to such great extent that it can be identified as more than just individual phenomena. The Internet has changed us as much as we have changed it.

Consequently, users are assumed to have short attention spans, due to the multitude of materials available at near-instantaneous speeds (not accounting for lag time in accessing and downloading content). The Internet provides variety and convenience, and while it does not explicitly force the user to act, the compulsion to always be online, to check emails or social media accounts several times per day, contrasts with such agency; our attention is driven not by intentionality but by habit due to the immersive qualities of online engagement. Online presence becomes a multidimensional phenomenon in that not only can we still feel the compulsion to check online accounts when we are away from Internet-enabled devices, but the influx of Internet of Things devices, in which fridges, thermostats or pedometers with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi collects user data, increasingly positions users into a state that is at minimum passively-but-constantly connected.

A significant characteristic of heavy internet use is the feeling of a compression of time, where users lose track of time with hours seemingly flying away as they stayed engrossed with the bright glow of their computer monitor, and there are two theories that come into play that help position my argument in juxtaposition with this idea. First is the concept of networked time, posited by Robert Hassan (2015), characterized primarily by an asynchroncity that is connected through networks but disconnected from external structures of time measurement. It is based on the context of its environment and those who experience it, and as such the clock is no longer a linear experience. In Hassan’s own words:

Network time may be seen (experienced) as a temporal fragmentation of time(s) into numberless network contexts; into the time(s) that we create and experience online and in the increasingly networked forms of work and education and leisure that fill our waking hours. In the network the zoned hour of the clock becomes more and more irrelevant as the entire planet becomes the theoretical context of our networked connections and for the experience of time (p. 106).

As suggested by this definition, the varying technological practices of the average networked citizen is structured by network time which can find form in endless different contexts. There is a conceptual separation between offline and networked systems of time, primarily through the attitudes in which they are perceived. Offline time is characterized by more of an active awareness of time budgets and apprehension on how time is spent both online and offline. It is dictated by the minute but every single second needs to count. Networked time, in contrast, is characterized by time passing in relation to one’s own subjective experience, and relies on perceptual temporality rather than what is strictly quantifiable.

Second, much scholarship on online immersion tends to focus on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow (1990), where “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing seems to matter”, and his view is critical to this paper (p. 64). Csikszentmihalyi describes eight components of flow; a clear goal, challenges that match an individual’s skills, control over the task, immediate and efficient feedback, concentration and focus, loss of self-consciousness, loss of a sense of time, and an activity that becomes autotelic. All of these individually contribute to a user experience that is enjoyable and can invite academic studies on their own part, but what is most interesting to me is the impact that flow has on the perception of time. While this characteristic can be experienced in attention-engrossing physical activities such as knitting or hiking, it is critical to how we understand cognitive Internet immersion. The delineation of the term itself refers to the feeling of consistently flowing from one point to another, which can be exemplified in the qualities of the Internet and online browsing, further exemplified in other flow characteristics such as the immediate feedback of the user interface, and the focus required. Researching information, writing emails, creating content or playing games have the ability to induce flow, and there are constantly new avenues in which immersion can find potential to expand, whether that is through redesigns of user interfaces or content itself.

Self and Presence

While it has been suggested then that flow distorts the experience and perception of time after the act, when looking back and observing how quickly the time seemed to pass when online, the act of browsing the Internet under flow as a present state is a status that is not considered as much. One can still remember the general path an Internet browsing session took (with a glance to one’s browser history confirming as such) and at the moment one is sitting in front of a computer, time seems to move at a uniform pace. The question that comes to mind then is ‘has increased flow changed our way of viewing time and the present?’, and this area can be explored through a consideration of Edmund Husserl’s work on inner time-consciousness. Temporalizing consciousness is important to understand the links between subjects and in phenomenology as a whole, but it can also be useful in understanding presence online. One of his often referenced examples in explaining this concept is the perception of a set of musical notes, as while music can be a physical experience, the experience of the notes as temporal objects are abstracted from being in space, letting us understand temporal experiences with multi-dimensional objects that are neither here or there (Husserl & Churchill, 1964).

What is important to understand is that notes pass through our perception in an ordered, linear flow with distinct durations and sequences; notes are not heard individually, they build on the previous sounds in order to create melody and predictions for what future notes in the sequence will sound like. From this example Husserl concludes that consciousness is not a single point in a perceivable present, but a phase with a width that includes perceptions of what has passed and what is to come, involving the retention of experiences for future experiences to build on. A similar example can be understood in the instance of a verbal or written sentence, as the previous words are required in order to complete and comprehend the rest of the statement.

I would argue then that a similar state of inner time-consciousness can be witnessed through the habits of heavy internet users experiencing flow, with some minor variations. To break this down, let us consider the average browsing experience which involves a user transitioning from one page through enough through embedded hyperlinks; the ‘rabbit hole’ of Wikipedia in which the hyperlinks in articles can branch out very quickly to distanced topics serves as an illustrative example. While an internet browser typically provides navigation tools such as forwards, backwards and stop, user interaction is always on a forward momentum in order to find more information and move to the next page, with a distinctively linear progression that often does not have a final destination. Their experience is always precursory by the content on the previous page, and further action will usually be defined by the content on the current page, whether through embedded hyperlinks or by inspiring the user to visit a related site. The ability for users to have multiple tabs on most popular browsers extends this concept through the capacity for several different experiences that I would call ‘online narrative progressions’.

The difference between Husserl’s example of a musical progression and an online narrative progression is that musical sequences have an ending that can then give the entire progression a physicality as being classified as a song-object; in contrast the experience of browsing the Internet has no end, as it exists as a temporally liminal state that is exacerbated by the immersion of flow. Internet use in flow, in which time is distorted and compressed, creates an online stream of information that is continually redirected with information overload. Flow then can be suggested to create new temporal rhythms and experiences of the present which is constantly generating itself to no particular end point. This continual flow, both in terms of online immersion and time compression, as well as the movement from one webpage to another, is influential in how the Internet has shaped commerce and consumer behavior, which will be examined in the following section.

The Monetization of Attention

Flow can be considered to be the bungee cord that compels users to continue to return to certain website, a characteristic that is critical to successful web design. While described as applying to individual sites, it can arguably be understood in the daily habits of browsing that regular Internet users find themselves engrossed in; moving from one’s email to a popular news website to a daily update of new entertainment videos creates a regularity that is hard to break from, as the regimen becomes part of the daily routine landscape. Websites can try to increase our flow by adding potential websites to this linear stream of habitual browsing; popular blog network Gawker Media oversees several different blogs including Lifehacker, Jezebel and Gizmodo and will link to each others content in order to create crossover interactivity. On the user’s side, their attention is drawn in and immersion is boosted, but the consumerist side provides benefits that change our notion of Internet architecture.

The further users browse the surface of the web, the more links clicked and pages viewed and the more opportunity websites have to present advertisements. It is in their best interest for a user to lose track of time, for their several hour browsing session to be seemingly condensed into a fraction of such a duration, as it makes it easier to slide more paid advertisements into view and thus earn more revenue. A popular strategy employed involves publishing web content that builds on each other, to draw your attention in and see what’s next, to add more musical notes to the never-ending melody of the Internet experience, to recall Husserl. Completed videos on YouTube prompt the user to select a related video to watch next or articles draw in users with flashy titles and tease them to ‘click to find out more’. Tactics such as native advertisement, in which advertisements mimic their host site’s design, understand the importance of maintaining immersion and flow and thus try to make their marketing blend in with existing successful web content.  Additionally, the increase of social media integration on news websites adds a whole new element to increasing flow as it builds on continually updating user-generated content; the flow from one webpage to another is legitimized as articles are recommended by trusted sources, and simply reading a webpage offers not only the ability to navigate to a hyperlinked page, but engagement and feedback which gives the impression of interactivity.

Temporal dynamics and the measurement of time have an insurmountable impact on capital accumulation in that it defines strategies in the capitalist mode of producing, distributing, selling, consuming and disposing of commodities. Under typical models since capitalist’s definition, the control of a consumer market requires the delineation of time blocks that define when working society labours, sleeps or enjoys leisure time. As Lewis Mumford (1934) argues “the clock, not the steam engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age” (p.14). Time is money and every minute is important not only to the producer of commodities, but the user who enjoys commodities at certain times of their rigidly scheduled day (such as purchasing a subscription to HBO in order to watch a specific program at a specific time). The ‘flowing’ Internet user becomes at the same time, the audience of online content and the worker who is producing advertisement revenue by virtue of their labour-power in viewing webpage after webpage.

So where does that leave us with online time? Capitalist time or clock time is just as abstract of a system to grasp, but its quantitative structure is so forceful in society that it seems difficult to change. Pto the clock, forms of time measurement concerned “task orientation”, or the duration of a human activity such as boiling rice (not to be concerned with Marxist socially necessary labour time) (Rodemeyer, 2006). Such an approach would not be useful in considerations of the Internet because not only is there no standard time delineation that stands for an average online browsing session, but previous discussions have emphasized that users are consistently passively connected through their smart devices. But with so many aspects of western contemporary society revolving around an online presence, new considerations of time are needed. Most critically, what has changed with the acknowledgement of flow and an increase in online marketing strategies that target immersion is a shift in how capitalists value a consumer’s time.

Concluding Thoughts

The internet creates a largely invisible presence that is difficult to define as an object, that exists within a different temporality to our own in everyday capitalist society. Online spaces affect our behavior, communications, and metaphors for describing the, with the transfer of bandwidth in transmitting messages acting as a conduit of the voice or thought, and the temporal practices involved in Internet browsing becoming constitutive of the act itself; as Bourdieu (1990) argues, the meaning of practice is inseparable from its “temporal structure, that is, its rhythm, its tempo, and above all its directionality” (p. 81). Immersion within cyberspace, while previously constitutive of concerns over Internet addiction, have become expected and encouraged by both audience and author of online content.

The measurement of time and the state of being in a present phase, as described by Husserl, does not affect the materiality of a world, be it on-or-offline, as it is in itself fundamentally material as a socially-constructed system of networked time. The measurement of time as affected by Internet flow thus requires new ways of understanding multiple temporalities. Equal to this notion are the multiple measurements of capitalist time and how consumerist behavior increasingly models itself on the compression of time through the increase of flow, rather than distinct separations enforced by clock time. The importance of Internet time is that it actually creates new temporalities, rather than following a standard progression of time that already exists. The increase of the Internet of Things, in which refrigerators, televisions, and coffee mugs are online, shows that this field is not just limited to websites on the World Wide Web.

The impact of capitalizing on flow can be acknowledged not only through past online media practices, but through the predictions of where such strategies will take us and our browsing habits, and it is for this reason why such considerations are significant. Emerging technologies targeting an increased immersion in virtual spaces can only further increase this flow, and thus draw the attention of both leisurely hobbyists (seeking to further immerse themselves in flow) and commercial enterprises (seeking to capitalize on a user base in which time is fluid and thus susceptible to marketing and data collection). One of the more well-known virtual reality headset technologies, the Oculus Rift, is advertised to make users feel like they are actually in a virtual world. In addition to game environments, the Rift provides multimedia support so users can still browse the internet without taking of the headset that effectively closes them off from the rest of the world, showing the potential of flow increase through an enforced telepresence that is harder to disengage with.

The immersion of the Oculus Rift has not gone unnoticed by other companies; in 2014 Oculus was purchased by Facebook for two billion dollars (Solomon, 2014). While explicit social media integration has not yet found its way to the Oculus, it has currently been released for consumer markets for only two weeks, it is an anxiety that many virtual reality enthusiasts have shared. What is currently known however is that the software suite that the Rift requires to operate is able to send and receive data about a user’s habits, and the device’s privacy policy indicates that Facebook may be able to share that data, presumably to improve flow experience for users and thus marketing strategies (Legal Documents). While time is compressed and fluid to those engrossed virtual or online worlds, the gears of the external capitalist machine continue to turn at a consistent rate.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Hassan, R. (2015). The Function of Time in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional World, and its Relevance in the Networked Society. New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry, 7(2), 101-115. Retrieved April 5, 2016.

Husserl, E., & Churchill, J. S. (1964). The phenomenology of internal time-consciousness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lee, H., & Liebenau, J. (2000). Time and the Internet at the Turn of the Millennium. Time & Society, 9(1), 43-56.

Mumford, L. (1934). Technics and civilization. New York: Brace and Harcourt.

Legal Documents. (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2016, from https://www.oculus.com/en-us/legal/privacy-policy/

Solomon, B. (2014, March 25). Facebook Buys Oculus, Virtual Reality Gaming Startup, For $2 Billion. Retrieved April 4, 2016, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/briansolomon/2014/03/25/facebook-buys-oculus-virtual-reality-gaming-startup-for-2-billion

Rodemeyer, L. M. (2006). Intersubjective temporality: It’s about time. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

 

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