Wednesday, April 11, 2007

History Appliances: The Metronome

I recently started reading John Thackara's new book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, where I came across this vivid depiction of the infinite archive

On just one single day of the days I have spent writing this book, as much world trade was carried out as in the whole of 1949; as much scientific research was published as in the whole of 1960; as many telephone calls were made as in all of 1983; as many e-mails were sent as in 1990 (p.5)

The statement provides food for thought on a number of levels. How long does it take for the volume of something to increase by a couple of orders of magnitude? What roles do transaction and information costs play? We might also think about converse situations: On a single day in year 18xx, more whalebone corsets were made than in the whole of 2005. Statements of this form allow us to formulate relations between different time periods in quantitative terms.

How might we convey such information about historic rates or volumes in a more tangible or peripheral way? Suppose we wanted to get a feel for the increasing amount of e-mail exchanged as the nineties unfolded. One possibility would be to hook up a stream of historical data to a metronome driven by a servomotor. As the years slowly scroll by on an odometer-like display, the tempo increases from largo, through adagio to hardcore techno. You probably have to turn it off at that point. Not only will the sheer volume of e-mail cause the metronome to tear itself to pieces if you let it continue towards Y2K, but hardcore techno was, as AllMusic tells us, "practically ... a dinosaur by the end of the decade."

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