Nation-K against Swatch Time

Rowan McNaught

Welcome to Nation-K, Children’s Conceptual Nation Against Swatch Internet Time

Last updated 19 May 2014 by Rowan McNaught. Edit this document ›

Hello! I am a 17-year-old boy from America!! (I am being assisted in writing this declaration by a panel of 29 to 38-year-old men and women.) I’ve travelled on the highway to speak to you, and I want you to join with me in an idea.

Do you remember Swatch Internet Time? It was a ‘movement for a new time’, emanating in 1998 from (and oriented to) the headquarters of Swatch in Biel, Switzerland. It was often referenced in the prophecy-making of Nicholas Negroponte, the American techno-utopian (he spoke about touch interfaces at the first TED conference in 1984). Swatch Internet Time called for the elimination of all time zones in favour of a day of a thousand metric beats, simultaneous across the world.

In putting the concept together, Swatch relied on early cyberterminology—the units of Internet time are depicted with an @ like this: @654, but are called ‘.beats’ (‘dot-beats’1 ) Everybody on the earth would be living in the same ‘point’ in time, though their circumstances and environment would wildly differ. What a happy way to put it—a coming-together of disjunctive temporalities!!! It’s clear, however, that within this simultaneous call for human union/mechanism for marketing strategy is an assertion of time idealised around collaborative productivity, as well as a way to sell everyone new watches—a dualistic design pattern that could be said to be prototypical of today’s internet products.

New solutions like Swatch Internet Time have to create an enemy from existing complexity—and time zone logic has become complex. The boundaries of time zones are often set by national borders rather than in straight bands across geographies, and there are many peculiarities and exceptions to the zone shapes tied to geopolitical history—and thus they appear arbitrary to the engineer who thinks in instructions and repetitions. (For example: Unix time, a metric favoured by engineers for computer time calculations, is the total number of seconds since 00:00:00 on the 1st of Jan 1970 UTC. The Unix time as of writing is 1,400,388,502. Meet you at 1,400,420,459?)

time_zones

Today, for a website to infer what the human-comprehensible time is for the user, it must wrangle a handmade database of this geopolitical history—and it would have been trickier still in 1997. But with Swatch Internet Time, it’s all the same everywhere, and it repeats every day. It speaks to the spirit that reigns today: one of reforming social systems towards the liquidly programmatic, oriented primarily around machine behaviours and with an aesthetic layer applied separately via the user interface. Within the gap between these layers, any number of tricks can lie. (Blanket surveillance, for one.)

Because I’m just a seventeen-year-old boy, I don’t really know what Nation.1 precisely is or was, but one thing is for sure: it runs on Swatch Internet Time. Nicholas Negroponte announced at the 1998 Junior Summit that Swatch Internet Time had been adopted as Nation.1’s official time metric. A ‘conceptual children’s nation’, it had been announced a year earlier in a teleconference to a UN committee, and was described as a kid-led proposal to develop the materials for a borderless, decentralised ‘country in cyberspace’. The Nation.1 project rolled weightlessly (i.e., conceptually) through many permutations, eventually becoming a non-profit organisation before being dismantled and disappearing within another more traditional and capacity-building non-profit. But I’m most excited about that first moment—the ‘conceptual nation’. Wow! As a first step, a group of ‘very wired’ children from around the world met for a week with Negroponte and a panel of other adults to discuss the nation—its voice, flag and currency and the decentralised system of politics it would require. I’m too young to know—was Nation.1 a technophilic and badly-maintained version of the Model U.N.??? Or was it an evasive premonition of the technological colonisation of time and state that continues today???

Nation.1’s archive uses the Squeak Swiki system, an early ‘wiki’: a model of publishing software that eventually leads to Wikipedia. It is designed to enable collaborative editing of a document (or conceivably any object) that preserves the flow in time, history and origin of changes. This flow moves ever forward—even the act of reverting a change (and thus taking the document back to an earlier point in time) creates a new point in the history of the object.

The perfect memory of the wiki can evade the irreducible arbitrariness of systems such as geographical time zones by creating a machine-readable, play-by-play archive. This has consequences in two directions: if our ‘decentralised and participatory’ spirit ever gets really lost here in Nation.1, we can just retrace our steps by working backwards over all the changes in the wiki and everything will be fine, OK? But, potentially, we can also work forward in time by speculating out on the vector that the wiki edits describe. With this ability, does the goal of a conceptual children’s nation become to forecast what a ‘real’ nation might look like when such children are adults? And also then to influence it?

And!! By the way… do you know what? One of its many (and mutually exclusive) descriptions framed Nation.1 as ‘the hub for youth traffic on the internet […] with a customised “citizenship” account, giving access to personal email, a messaging system, and a personalised log-in page with information custom designed for each user based on their preferences and “history” within the Nation.1 system’. By this account, our social networks are at heart conceptual children’s nations. How did this happen?

sq

From Squeak Swiki, mascot of cheshirish cat-mouse, banned from universities for leaky privacy, we find the blueprint of Nation.1 frozen here, a jumbled archive of ‘directly-democratic’ newsgroup and email records. Forming the majority of the nation’s official media, it consists of scribbled minutes, short salvos of people asking other people to put things ‘into action’, and half-made documents of structural guidelines based on both generic government and programming standards. Though the Nation.1 constitution sets out a thorough and stuffy framework of councils and ministers, it appears that most of the work towards Nation.1 was carried out anarchically with the occasional and casual vote. Meow!

For example, the children members voted that you would be kicked out of the nation when you’re 25. (They call it a ‘temporal, not a physical border’. Time is not considered physical in cyberspace.) But that’s ok: when you get kicked out of Nation.1, you have hopefully enjoyed the ‘environment for learning and growth’, and you’re now ready to manage other people effectively. You understand and can spruik the ideology of productive networked anarchism, and have a good sense for what watch to recommend for the dialled-in member of the global culture of young humanity. (Although, you might also stay on as an Adult Adviser, who ‘renders advice’ without voting rights.)

So, fellow kids, who’ve also travelled on the highway today—what am I getting at? While we choose not to be members of Nation.1, we too want to explore the consequence of forming social structures and arguments without geography! And I know that the panel of twenty-nine to thirty-eight-year-old men are envious of us, sitting here on the slate-coloured carpet in the space that has been cleared of tables in one of the conference rooms on the campus of this telepresence hardware company. As Negroponte mentioned when announcing Nation.1, ‘the global information society is ours only to dream—it will be up to these children to live it out.’ These adults fetishize how we use new technology innocently, and by extension, our energy, lifetimes and souls. Every interaction with a thing, they think, is a hardening of behaviour and attitude. (‘This is how this works, and likely will always work. My expectations now hinge on that knowledge.’2 ) These adults have the opportunity, in campuses like these, to draw out our innocent genius into relative surplus value—to make the future’s money today. They just, I think, have to draw the largest flock of boys and girls to the campus, and then de-emphasise the perception of time by replacing this slate-coloured carpet with a carpet that depicts the Fibonacci sequence occurring inadvertently in the opening sequence of Samurai Pizza Cats; by interweaving bain maries and cubicles in a checkerboard across this floor; and so forth. (The adults don’t even need voting rights in a campus like this! It’s kind of like starting a conceptual children’s nation.)

Though the citizens of Nation.1 never got to the point of delineating their cultural materials, the anthem of Nation.1 may as well have been,

Find /
Find again /
Set search string /
Do again /
Undo /
Copy / cut / paste / paste
Do it /
Print it /
Inspect it /
Explore it /
Debug it /
Accept /
Cancel /
More.3

What a boring song! But we as kids do really want the unfixedness of a conceptual nation!! We want to become objects of attraction, edging toward each other with each piece of granted control, exchanged idea, speculative structure, and all the other stuff for kids that we’re doing here.

swatcc

Swatch Internet Time is a superstructural timekeeping mechanism—it relies on its relationship to existing zoned time. While @560 might be unambiguous in setting the time for a round-the-world Skype meeting, it doesn’t say anything about whether it is night or day. (Except perhaps in Biel, the middle of the world according to Internet Time.) Thus, no Swatch was ever manufactured that only depicted Internet Time. By negating its biologically circadian and cultural benefits, Swatch Time completes the subsumption of timekeeping into productivity that began in Industrial Manchester — how do we knock off before dusk if the Swatch around our wrist doesn’t index the light?

It’s paradoxical: a revolution that relies on the continuance of the existing system. And Nation.1 is like this too: at heart, a nation (whose sole products might be software, management consulting and friendship) that exists literally within the existing infrastructure of the various states of its members. This paradox governs the behaviour of current-day Californian technology companies, too: you see it, for example, in the private Google buses that use public bus infrastructure in San Francisco to transport employees. This superstructural effect is seductive to the digital-minded libertarian because they do not see it as paradoxical: a revolution might just be a CPU cycle, and an overabundance of options and systems is the ideal, as it both allows them to ignore factors external to their modelling—e.g., whether the state continues to be able to construct bus infrastructure—and offers more material in their control with which to deduct. (By the way: as an introvert, I hate travelling on the public bus.)

benevocats

by Cameron Mcefee, via

The model of anarchy-for-productivity’s-sake that Nation.1 advocated for (decentralised government; kids in charge; harnessed innocence as surplus value) and that ran on Swatch Time (meetings anytime, all of the time) ended up recurring and being advanced in Internet start-ups like Github. With mascot of tentacled cat, there are few specific management goals here—employees work on whatever they want all the time, but thus have to corral colleagues to work on their projects to survive. (“It’s meritocratic!” claims the one with the most projective voice, or whose long neck extends their eye line above the plateau of standing desks, but more likely the one who abuses their seniority to harass one of the relatively few female employees).

So let’s imagine a counterpoint of (or a descendant to) Nation.1, say: Nation-K. Mascot the face of a pig, or maybe a sloth. (We’ll found it on the monkey bars, not in the PC room.) We’ll proclaim that Nation-K has no official metric of time whatsoever! Work when you like! (And no elections, no constitution. Pure, dynamic bylaws that grow with every experience.) We can get together, plan it together! First, let’s have a break for however long you want. We’ll meet back here whenever.

  1. Who can explain the fervour, pre-boom, of nominal dots-for-spaces? A foreshadowing of the economic implosion into a speck? []
  2. The name that this phenomenon has been given is path dependence. []
  3. Adapted from the context menu of Squeak. []
Rowan McNaught is an editor of West Space Journal.