Data is Eating Clocks

It struck me recently that Marc Andreessen’s now-famous observation, that software is eating everything, has a special case that is particularly interesting for students of the history of the industrial revolution.

Data is eating clocks.

Fifteen years ago, I used to wear a watch.  One day, I lost it and never replaced it. The only time I look at a clock these days is when I have to catch a train or plane. I only think about the date when I have to sign a legal document. Most of the time, the day of the week matters more.

The clock was both a motif for the industrial revolution and a critical piece of technology driving it. Every small town in Europe gradually acquired a village clock tower. In the US, time zones emerged alongside transcontinental railroad clocks.

One reason precise time-keeping was so important in the industrial age is that when data is scarce, synchronization becomes critical to many activities. If you don’t know where your friend is, you have to set a precise  time and place to meet: “let’s meet at Starbucks at 10:30. But if you can text, you can coordinate in much looser ways: “I’ll text you when I am close to downtown and we can figure out where to meet.”

Behavior becomes more responsive to real-time situational details, and more robust to delays. Synchronization, a fragile coordination technique, becomes less necessary.

Interestingly enough, Chet Richards, a close associate of John Boyd, told me that Boyd hated the idea of synchronization, which was antithetical to his conception of maneuver warfare. Synchronization, however, was central to the idea of network-centric warfare, which is often viewed as an opposed doctrine.

I think the human world is increasingly going to become liberated from clocks and calendars. This is the literal manifestation of atemporality. Clocks will remain extremely important to coordination between artificial technologies, however. Cellphones, satellites, data centers: all need very precise clocks to talk to each other properly.

The artificial world is going through its own industrial revolution apparently, going by the increasing importance of clocks to the inner workings of technology.

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  1. Fascinating point.

    I’m amused by the timing (!) of this post since I’m wearing a wristwatch for the first time in many years, and a mechanical watch that requires winding (!) for the first time ever. The practical use for such a thing has been eclipsed by smartphones and other generic devices – the mechanical watch is purely an art object / accessory / luxury item.

    There’s a lot of interesting historical social and literary symbolism and metaphor around clocks, as you point out. In some cultures, punctuality was likened to reliability and even morality (but also a certain unforgiving rigidity and stiffness – e.g. as in Fascist Italy, where “the trains ran on time”). The archetypal “gold watch” earned by many years of service in a job is probably a consequence of this rich symbolism.

    Smartphones and other communication technologies have definitely permitted social organization to get looser and more amorphous. But if you can text your friends in real-time that you’ll be late, it’s a lot harder for punctuality to retain its currency as some absolute standard.

  2. Philosophers would say, “You can’t get an ought from an is.” Coordination being easier doesn’t mean that it is better. My wife and I traveled to Paris recently and went to the Louvre. Naively, we assumed that a public building would have wifi (our CDMA radios weren’t of much use). Needless to say we were separated before making a plan. Planning is good, rigid attachment to a plan is bad, and relying solely on coordination is also bad. We ended up meeting back at the coat check a bit frazzled.

    Making people wait for you, text message or not, is rude to many of us. But that’s another discussion.

  3. Alexander Boland says

    I remember reading the same thing about Boyd–maybe it was in Hammond’s bio.

    I think about a biological organism–we do not synchronize; we are a messy disequilibrium of processes. In addition, to use Taleb’s words (assuming you’ve gotten around to Antifragile), I’d say that synchronization severely cripples optionality–which is at the heart of Boyd’s doctrine (to this day I’m sad that they weren’t able to be contemporaries. There’s so much similarity between their work.)

    This leads me to believe that there’s something more fundamental to this than just data-as-redundancy, and yet I probably haven’t yet had enough coffee.

    • In addition, to use Taleb’s words (assuming you’ve gotten around to Antifragile), I’d say that synchronization severely cripples optionality

      Meeting a single dedicated person or a group thereof will always be fragile and in the end, the mutual adaption process described by Venkat may effectively costs more time and energy for all participants. This has little to do with biological organisms, where individual cells are interchangeable. It would be nice of course when you could ring at your neighbors door and have a business meeting with anyone, instead of meeting a guy at the other end of a town for a lunch.

      The past few days were snowy in Munich. In winter the schedule of the overground city train network frequently deranges and becomes chaotic, with delays spreading all over the network, which won’t get silenced until night when the complete traffic stops for a couple of hours. So the night is used for reset and return to schedule. I wonder if the network couldn’t be better managed by insertion of synchronization points whenever the cumulated delays pass a threshold?

      What if, contrary to popular sentiment and sociology, we are still on our way into the industrial age, not in our way out?

      • That is a very provocative thought.

      • Alexander Boland says

        I’m not following about interchangeability. Sure, on some micro-level, people aren’t “interchangeable”, but on a macro level society can certainly interchange actors.

        And even in the human body, I imagine cells have a certain level of stochasticity on the micro level that we simply don’t pay attention to on the macro level.

  4. Phil Ridderhof says

    Actually, the original intent of “synchronization” in US military doctrine was to ensure coordination among actions, not based on a set time. It was more important that cover fire occurred simultaneous to the movement it was designed to support, rather than each occurring at a set time. however, as the doctrine was executued, it became very easy to capture it in a form that tied it to time (the synchronization matrix), which drove differing parts to make their goal accomplishing the action at the prescribed time, vice in coordination with the other actions.

  5. I’ve actually started wearing a wrist-watch again because it is easier to quickly check it for the time while someone’s back is turned or they are looking away than it is to do with a phone, so it’s possible (I think) to check my watch without being noticed. Whereas I find that impossible to do with a cell phone.

    However, a more interesting point is the importance of accurate timing for science and for everyday medicine. I remember Bill Bryson’s book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” exposed me for the first time to the importance of timing in science. For example, I think he mentions how crucial accurate timing was to let us measure the size of the Earth. And of course we all know the stories of science grad students and postdocs that are slaves the accurate timing of their experiments. In daily medicine it has the obvious importance that certain drugs need to be taken at relatively precise intervals. (Whether such intervals could be measured by someone intimately familiar with telling time by the sun is a fair question, but I think most people who can tell time by the sun never need it to be that accurate, and I think even that is a very small subset of the population. Not to mention the fact that the sun isn’t always shining.)

  6. Synchronisation does have this magical relationship to encryption though; the one time pad is a kind of synchronisation.

  7. Apple’s next device rumored to be a “wrist watch”.

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