Before Our Eyes (part 3)

Lost Time and the Artificial Present

For such a system to succeed, the speed of our nervous impulses must be exceeded by the rate of the stimulus. In DLP systems two distinct frequencies combine, both well above the temporal resolution of human sight. The colour wheel revolves at a frequency of approximately 120 revolutions per second, while the micromirrors on the DMD chip dither at a frequency near 10,000Hz. When media technical operations so routinely outstrip human temporal resolution, the instantaneity so hard sought by the photographic industry during the twentieth century loses its meaning. The appearance of an image on the screen of a digital camera is now fast enough to be commonly described as instantaneous, at least with reference to our perception, yet it conducts many operations of correction, optimisation, reduction, and compression on each image before it is displayed on the screen. Even ‘an instant’ has become an interval capable of being instrumentalised by image processing algorithms.

The micro-temporality of these technical operations is also predicated on a physiological understanding of human perceptual response established in the nineteenth century by Helmholtz’s measurements of stimulus and response. Prior to these experiments, nerves were presumed to transmit stimuli instantaneously around the body. Contrary to this presumption, Helmholtz “aimed at investigating this alleged instantaneity more closely and, if possible, to define it more precisely” (p. 61-2). To conduct this research Helmholtz first constructed an apparatus assembled from a sample of frog muscle, a rotating cylinder and a steel stylus (see image below). When the muscle was stimulated with an electrical impulse, its contraction caused the stylus to inscribe a curve in a soot-coated transparency that was wrapped around the clockwork-driven brass cylinder. From these curves it was possible to observe, and indeed measure, for the first time, a gap between sensation and resulting movement – cause and muscular effect – a gap which Helmholtz figured as temps perdu. Helmholtz’s subsequent experiments with human subjects measured a surprisingly consistent delay between stimulus and response of 0.12 and 0.20 seconds. Helmholtz’s repetition of these experiments in different areas of the body led him to conclude that “in humans the ‘message of an impression’ propagates itself to the brain with a speed of circa 60 meters per second” (p.144). The limit speed of lived experience was revealed and defined by a machine that hybridised the mechanical with the organic, stimulating the latter with electricity. Such precise measurements of physiological time were only made possible by the twin technics of clockwork and the electrical telegraph, time had to have been mechanised and the body conceived as a network of electrical impulses before the duration of human nervous impulses could be measured. Media again precedes the mechanistic understanding of physiology.    

In the context of digital technologies this temps perdu, the lost time of bodily reaction, has too become externalised in an array of buffers, caches, and shift registers that all serve – be it in an operation of image capture, video playback or networked communication – to delay the materialisation of the instant in temporary stasis while it is archived or resynchronised by the time signature of the machine. And, due to the wide discrepancy between embodied temporalities and media-technical frequencies these momentary delays are opportunities for further computation, or as Wolfgang Ernst puts it: “suspended in memory, time becomes mathematically available” (p. 28). To a chip whose clocking frequency is 10,000Hz, even the fastest possible human response time of 0.1 seconds represents a significant opportunity. The psychophysical quantification of a lag between stimulus and response enables the acquisition of the ephemeral by the logic of the machine. It is within this temps perdu that the processes of encoding, optimisation and compression are all achieved. As Florian Sprenger writes: “the fact that transmissions are constantly interrupted means that they are never completed in putative real-time … and that we have no direct access to the world we are connected to” (p. 20-1). Experience is extracted into memory before it registers in the mind.

What does it mean for an image to be instantaneous when it is routinely manipulated in advance of being seen?  What is our experience of time when these operations are continually occurring in an imperceptible buffer before the screen? This is neither the time of the phenomenological present, nor the time of the live electronic broadcast, but time dissected, quantized and reconstructed in pre-instantaneous moments before our very eyes. For Ernst this means that “computing dislocates the metaphysics of the pure present to a micro-deferred now” (2018: 35). As Ernst shows in Chronopoetics, synchronicity was vital to the time-image of electronic television, but in the individualised playback of digital media synchronicity dissolves into myriad individualised timelines whose buffers and connectivity resynthesise the impression of synchronicity on demand. The live has been replaced with the live-like, a parallel temporality that slips in and out of sync with the now, in and out of sync with its soundtrack, in and out of sync with others.

In his analysis of The Helmholtz Curves, Schmidgen analogises Helmholtz’s method to photography, noting that these experiments both “cropped a specific part of reality in the lab” and “defined their own temporality” which Schmidgen calls an artificially created present (14), a temporality extracted from the conditions of the real in order that it might be measured. Conditions that were necessary for the precise study of bodily time are now replicated in media technical temporalities which capitalise on the relatively sluggish human physiological response times measured by Helmholtz under these same conditions. The artificial temporality of an experiment that revealed the durations of perceptual signals is now reproduced by one that capitalises on precisely those durations to construct the visible in advance of perception. Digital media recreate this artificial present anew every time we press play. Between the ‘stream’ of conscious experience and the ‘streaming’ of digital media lies a concantenation of technical processes of artificial colourimetry and temporalisation.

Duration and spectrum are not directly experienced, but recreated from micro-temporal and mono-chromatic fragments, re-synthesised afresh for each viewer. How do these media re-temporalisations of ‘the live’ and ‘the present’ re-model our own temporal perception? In media environments that are optimised for the individual, where search results, adverts and content are all are tailored to our preferences, where ‘timelines’ are personalised, do we still inhabit time communally? To be con-temporary is literally to be in-time-with, but what happens to communal experience of time when we are no longer in sync with our contemporaries?

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