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Will digitisation change your perception of time?

This is a contributed piece by Kai Goelich, Market and Trend Analyst at SAP AG

The Internet of Things is already changing the way we connect with our devices and objects, but will it have the power to change the way we perceive that most human of concepts – time? Gartner predicts that the number of connected devices in the IoT will increase nearly 30-fold in just over a decade, growing from about 900m connected devices in 2009 to more than 26bn by 2020. As a result, everything – companies, processes, data, and things – will be connected. Very soon we will be networking things around us that have been seen as purely physical and non-digital, like the espresso machine, the toaster, beds, musical instruments, and even animals. The big question now is how will we use all this information and how will it change our lives as a result?

As human beings, we experience and act within the limits of our biology, which is more or less adapted to our environment. Modern technology holds the promise to expand our humanness beyond those limits and erase the boundaries between ourselves and our objects. Many people are already experimenting with ‘cyborging’, for example by restoring a lost body function or enhancing abilities by integrating an artificial component or technology. But we don’t have to go to those extremes to see that the sheer number of networked objects might significantly change the way we experience the world.

Time: neural construct or reality?

One of our most subjective experiences is time. Our language mirrors that: We get ‘lost in time’; ‘time flies’; we try to ‘save time’ or ‘find time’ just before we ‘run out of’ it. Obviously, time is a highly personal and overall a controversial experience, highlighted by the many scientists and philosophers who’ve been exploring the concept of time for centuries.

In classical philosophical thinking, time is defined as something that happens in the consciousness of an individual only as a construct of one’s thoughts. Time could therefore be seen as an illusion and not something which actually exists in the present. Einstein took a completely different approach however and said that time is part of space-time, making it one of the most important concepts of modern physics. Some scientists think that we should get rid of time altogether and treat it as part of a psychological frame in which we experience material changes in space. In her latest book on the experience of time and ontology, philosopher Yvonne Förster-Beuthan, a professor at Leuphana University in Germany, follows a different thought. She claims that time emerges within the interaction of a subject and an object.

So think of time as something like colour. Leaves aren’t green so that we can see the colour but because of the chlorophyll they contain to absorb sunlight. It takes the biosensors in our eyes to capture the light and our neurons to come up with the interpretation of a colour. The same might be true for time: It is an interpretation based on a real interaction, or rather an entanglement, between a subject and an object. Therefore the experience of time within the digitalised world can vary depending on our relationship to technology.

Time is culturally coded

Why is that argument important for us? Most of our modern societies are very time-oriented and depend on a common experience of time, like the structure we give our days by defining work, dinner and leisure time and how we plan for the future. But how we experience time in various situations is very different from culture to culture. The time concepts of the Western world follow a linear idea, also called monochromic view, with the past behind and the future ahead, a view that is not necessarily shared by all. For example, in the Asian Buddhist culture, a lunar orientation is more common, with on average shorter months than in most modern societies. Some cultures, such as the Hopi Nation, seem to have a very different idea of time with a lesser distinction between past and present. And as we know, timeliness is a cultural construct.

Time management or managed by time?

What may happen in our networked world is dissolution of not only the different cultural concepts but our own personal experience of time by modern media. Individual time management is one of the bigger requirements in the digital age. We simply need to deal with more information and we have to act on various levels simultaneously. As Förster-Beuthan points out, it is no wonder that under those conditions we subjectively feel an acceleration of time. We now can participate in events around the globe nearly as they happen, which gives us the feeling of a real, and real-time, experience. She thinks that we will increasingly experience time in a “thicker” or “deeper” way as the hyperconnected world with all its devices enables us to get access to information from various layers of time; history, present, and in simulations of the future - all in parallel.

Of course, due to our cultural background we might not be able to cope with those perceptions, running into a cognitive overkill. But Förster-Beuthan believes that our brains have sufficient neural plasticity to evolve with our technology. Pointing to gamers – who play on a level of interaction that most of us are simply unable to – she expects that augmented reality will allow us to perceive the flow of time very differently. For the moment, we can’t think of perceiving different layers of time simultaneously, but that may change in the future.

As more connected things give us more information and input, we may adopt a different meaning of time. Let’s hope that all those connected objects will free up enough time to offer more leisure as well.

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