I recently visited the CERN research facility in Geneva, where a number of faculty members from the University of Warwick work. There, four great experiments spaced around the almost 17-mile ring of the Large Hadron Collider are being put to work on questions like what happened after the Big Bang. In such work it is normal to think not only in terms of large spans of time but also in picoseconds. Indeed, much of today’s science is conducted in the realm of the very small and sometimes vanishingly small times. But what is interesting is how this focus has transferred to the social realm.
It has become something of a cliché that we are now able to see small spaces of time in ways denied to previous generations. As we have become able to see and operate in these small moments in time, so new spaces have opened up. The process has been documented in many dimensions, most especially in the realm of film and photography. For example, the recent book by Jimena Canales, A Tenth of a Second: A History, documents how from the 1850s on a finer interval of time could be tracked, traced, and portrayed.
As human systems have begun to work more and more in microseconds, spurred on by increased computation, we can see and operate on these small spaces of time in a way we never could before. For example, international finance often operates in the realm of seconds and even microseconds, as this example of trading in natural-gas contracts shows, where information received 400 milliseconds ahead of the pack can make a difference. A number of recent financial scandals have involved trading, price setting, and interest-rate setting in these very small spaces of time.
We can also track the way information and trends make their way around the world almost instantaneously, as this graphic of the release of Beyoncé’s new album on the web—and the global Twitter storm that followed—shows only too well. And this graphic, drawn from Baidu, China’s leading search engine, shows travel in China at Chinese New Year aggregated from data requests made to its maps service and other apps that use its location technologies minute by minute. In other words, human spatiality has both stepped up a level in spatial scale—in that it is now routinely global—and stepped down a level in temporal scale—in that it can be referenced second by second.
Yet we are still some way off coming to terms with analyzing these developments. They require mathematical expertise that is still in short supply. One of the most exciting academic developments of recent years has been the way in which mathematics and statistics suited to these phenomena have begun to sprout. Just as mathematicians have developed who specialize in life sciences, it seems likely that the same will happen in the social sciences and that, before long, such mathematicians will no longer be a rare breed.
Equally, there is a conglomeration of activity that brings together the arts and humanities, design, and computational science based around what might be called the aesthetics of immediacy, a longstanding Western cultural tradition first found in the realm of timekeeping (as my book with Paul Glennie, Shaping the Day, on the genesis of clock time shows), which is changing yet again as technological improvements allow new kinds of temporal representation.
But we should not forget the past. In the form of projects like the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab animation of the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, first published in 1932, we can see the way in which developments like these are influencing our understanding of the past by allowing it to be represented anew, if not in small times, then in smaller times than before.