Time Between Emergence and Design

February 7th 2012

Previously, experiences of time emerged from nature as given – offering seasons, the rhythm of humans, plants and animals. Nowadays, people integrate nature-time, body-time, inner-time, clock-time, and global 24/7 systems-time. Human beings, in past, current and next natures, have to deal with emergence and design of time in order to survive.

To think about how future new worlds are visualized, assumes that these images reveal how life in decades to come will be shaped. These visualizations offer insight into today’s imagination of next natures and next cultures to come. However, in these visualizations ‘time’ as a process of emergence and design, is often forgotten. This essay argues that time design is distinct in any next nature that will emerge.

Witnessing Spatiotemporal Trajectories

At the end of his life, American philosopher Thomas Kuhn1 concluded that in communities of practice human beings’ need to recognize other beings’ spatiotemporal trajectories to be able to share concepts and thereby develop language. In this statement he suggests that without understanding other beings’ movements through time and space no communication will be possible. This statement challenges today’s experience of global systems-time of millions of people who manage to communicate with people they do not know or see in the online world.

Nevertheless in today’s experience the feeling of having ‘no time’ has become a common good. Reaching out to anyone anywhere seems to generate ‘no time’ as a result. Will human beings be able to overcome the loss of sharing spatiotemporal trajectories and share concepts in next natures to come? What time design requirements would be needed to facilitate a time design that will foster the emergence of communication and possible new language as well?

In the past 15 years systems-time has invaded and restructured many professional practices the world over and people have developed a variety of time designs to make the 24/7 economy work for them. Without formulating it as such, a widespread knowledge and experience of time design has emerged in businesses, organizations and personal practices too.

In current interdisciplinary research at the Delft Technical University, four features have surfaced as being crucial in time design for human beings involved: integrating rhythm, synchronizing performance, moments to signify and duration of engagement. Hereunder these four dimensions are outlined with the awareness that more research in any of these will benefit future time design.

Integrating Rhythms

When working in distributed teams, organizing a shared rhythm is crucial for keeping communication and business processes in flow (2). Simple things, like one well-structured online meeting a week, generate trust and well being for all involved. When working in different time zones, adaptation to others at the expense of personal time has to be taken into account. In small businesses people benefit from the fact that distributed work on a day-to-day basis facilitates personal life styles for those involved.

Finding the ultimate rhythm between people’s personal time given the work that has to be done, is crucial for success. Global 24/7 systems-time has expanded human experience of time fundamentally. It offers immediate connections to other places anywhere facilitating interaction and transaction anytime and affects social structures of finance, law, business and family life profoundly.

Human beings, through a methodology of trial and error, find solutions to integrate different rhythms they are confronted with. Different kinds of time merge necessarily in personal, social and collective experience of time: nature-time, body-time, inner-time, clock-time and systems-time.

Human beings have to deal with emergence and design of time in order to survive.

Nature-time has a huge diversity of scale in time designs. Long eras and short time spans, stretched rhythms and instant events are deeply interwoven. This is the environment in which human presence exists.
Human bodies can only exist in one place and therefore human beings have partial perspective on nature-time as a whole. Human biological existence, the holder of body-time, is dependent on rhythms like day and night, heartbeat and breath.

Human existence also contains a sense of psychological inner-time, which has hardly been investigated and yet underlies processes of growth and transformation and defines how social situations and events are perceived (3).

Many centuries ago clock-time was introduced to mechanically structure shared social time. In the variety of clock-times, nature-time was integrated. Whether the clock was made by use of the sun, by smaller and smaller radars or by digits in contemporary design; clocks made it possible to socially anticipate what will happen next.

Clock-time always offers a local perspective on time because it is fundamentally connected to a specific region or place. Places are defined by nature-time offering seasons, climates and specific ecological systems that characterize a place. Clock-time and nature-time are integrated in local agendas take that into account the context in which the human body survives.

Integrating rhythm is part of any next nature that will emerge

Today’s systems-time, based on algorithms operating on a global scale, is changing the planetary landscape profoundly. Where before systems were built on principles of mandate and delegation, systems have become participants in communities of people in their own right (4).

Systems need clock-time to synchronize, but they are detached from nature-time. Like climate and weather, systems-time can also only be known through partial perspective, but unlike climate and weather, human beings can communicate in systems-time and many millions do so everyday.

Above all the use and impact of systems-time is its immediacy. Human beings can travel to expand their experience and mental map of the place they live. Systems-time offers an expansion of connection in an instant, any place anytime. It fosters the experience of being in one place while bodies involved reside in different places. Just as nature-time profoundly challenges human existence, so does systems-time.

Nature-, body-, inner- and clock- time offer rhythms that are shared and structure social life. Rhythms cannot not integrate (5). Over several centuries humankind developed a conscious integration of rhythms, inventing work hours, school hours, lunch breaks, agendas, holidays and more.

Systems-time is challenging the integration of rhythms, since it does not seem to have a rhythm of its own. In day-to-day experience individuals integrate systems-time to their benefit, but for organizations this is more problematic. Research into beneficial systems-time design has not been taken up yet.

Integrating rhythm is part of any next nature that will emerge, even though it is not clear which rhythm will dominate human life in the end. Human beings need to recognize and integrate rhythms to survive: nature-time, body-time, clock-time, inner-time. Especially systems-time, which gains importance day by day, is hard for human beings to recognize even though systems participate in human society more and more.

Synchronizing Performance

In seeking well-being and survival human presence judges and anticipates what will come next. In meeting a new person there is a moment when the encounter starts. Bodies reach out through perception and from the first instance a careful tuning of presence emerges. Lots of tacit knowledge is exchanged in such moments of exploring doubt and hesitation. Granular perception offers instant negotiation resulting in synchronizing the performance of presence to establish common ground upon which interaction may proceed.

The tuning of body rhythms in this process is profound; already a piece of glass between two people sitting at the same table breaks synaesthesia between them (5). Sensory perceptions, simple emotions and more complex feelings influence processes of synchronization fundamentally. To facilitate synchronization social structures have invented gestures of encounter. The handshake is such an example. Body language is distinct in these moments; the possible recognizing of each other’s spatiotemporal trajectories is at stake.

Mediating granular perception is complex. Collaborating distributed teams cannot communicate a simple phenomenon like color, for example (6). Nevertheless, human beings do synchronize in mediated communication in the variety of media they use.

In a phone call – where bodies are not present but the voice is – this negotiation happens through a switch between talking at the same time and silences that are just too long before conversation continues smoothly. SMSes need to arrive just in time and so on.

On the Internet, digital handshakes have the character of ‘pitching one’s presence’ after a period of investigating an online environment (7).

And even during participation, the process of synchronization is continuously ongoing in social networks and mailing lists because community members correct each other all the time to protect the ‘tone of voice’ they have agreed upon. When not sharing physical interaction people synchronize through engagement in time, through pitching and judging performance, through social control.

Synchronization of performance of presence will remain a feature as long as human beings want to interact in any next nature that may emerge. Synchronization between human beings and animals, ecosystems and larger technology systems is indispensable for interaction to take place.

Moments to Signify

Part of human existence is that meaning and signification are continuously generated in personal lives and in social structures that emerge through time. Emphasizing specific moments of transformation, of passage of time, highlights the process of time. It helps people to deal with time. Human societies have invented rituals and celebrations for specific moments in time through which meaning emerges for those involved.

Just as nature-time profoundly challenges human existence, so does systems-time.

In personal lives signifying moments play an important role. Be it a private experience of becoming aware, or a collective celebration in which one partakes, these signifying moments produce identity and are fundamental for cultures to survive. Through orchestrating signifying moments, shared experience emerges and offers participants a perspective on their individual position in context of the biological, ecological, technological or social whole.

In offering a perspective, it also produces this perspective, which is how cultures emerge and design at the same time. Creating ‘moments to signify’ is needed to create commitment for those involved (8). People need to share experience for ideas to become sustainable and materialize in the real world.

Special signifying moments offer unanticipated impact. In situations of trauma and tragedy the human mind accelerates. When bearing witness to moments of trauma, human beings dramatize to communicate impact (9). In these traumatic ‘imaginative’ moments inner-time dominates perception. Stories of trauma may even include perceptions of experiences that never took place.

However, they reveal an inner experience of impact that needs to be signified to be able to communicate. Signifying moments are necessary for meaning to emerge. Offering a shared experience and/or offering an intense personal experience, they are fundamental for cultures to sustain.

Any next nature that includes human life will be faced with the human need to signify. Moments to share the process of signification can be designed or will emerge. In these moments human inner time interacts deeply with surrounding rhythms and shapes culture.

Duration of Engagement

One’s short-lived presence on Facebook can be as authentic as a real-life land ownership spanning 80 years (10). Where authenticity used to be a property of being in one place for long stretches of time, in today’s world this notion is replaced by being engaged in an activity for specific durations of time. Duration of engagement qualifies participation, validates contributions and therefore deeply influences human lives.

Consequentially, it is not enough to be just present any more. Individuals need to prove existence by constantly transacting (7). The formulation of ‘duration of engagement’ stresses the fact that there is a beginning and an end to activity. From simple time designs to more complex situations in which time emerges, people have to adapt to beginnings and endings continuously, just as birth and death are fundamental to human existence.

For human beings the transformation between the start and end of engagement is crucial to their well-being because it generates ‘empty time’ in between. In empty time, whether one is bored or not, feelings, emotions and a different thinking surface and human presence emerges.

When such empty time is not granted, as in the Global Service Delivery model in the outsourcing industry in India in which people are monitored 24 hours a day, human beings’ well-being is seriously jeopardized (11). To generate empty time, robust structures of time design are needed (12). Only in moments of empty time can people experience the situation they are in and act on their well-being.

Communities of Practice

When accepting the proposition that recognizing spatiotemporal trajectories of other beings is fundamental to the ability to share concepts and develop language, any next nature that includes human presence will have to facilitate this recognition.

In current nature, systems-time is especially challenging to the human mind. Its scale and speed can only be partially perceived and it does not seem to have a rhythm of its own. Human beings find solutions to integrate it anyway, but it is not a given that people will be endlessly capable of doing this.

If next nature includes human presence it has to take into account that human beings integrate their own rhythm with the environment, synchronize performance of presence to be able to communicate and create moments to signify. Thus meaning emerges. Meaning in turn needs specific durations of engagement, with a beginning and an end, and has to include empty time to sustain human well-being and survival.

In the tension between emergence and design, human presence in past, current and next natures is shaped. The experience of time influences the experience of place, how we relate to each other and our scope of possible actions.

Any next nature will also be defined by its time design in which integrating rhythm, synchronizing performance, moments to signify and duration of engagement will define how human beings will be able to create communities of practice in which concepts, language, social structures and cultures will emerge.

Photo from Curious Expeditions on Flickr.


  1. Kuhn, Thomas S. 2000. The Road Since Structure, philosophical essays, 1970–1993, with an autobiographical interview, eds. James Conant and John Haugeland. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press.
  2. Wilson, Rebekah. 2008. Witnessed Presence And Systems Engineering, interviews by Caroline Nevejan conducted in the context of interdisciplinary research witnessed presence and systems engineering (Faculty of Technology, Management and Policy, TU Delft & NL Net). http://www.systemsdesign.tbm.tudelft.nl/witness/interviews/rw/interview-rw.html (accessed 21-06-2010)
  3. Oliver, Kelly. 2001. Witnessing, Beyond Recognition. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press.
  4. Brazier, F. & Veer, G van der. 2009. “Interactive Distributed And Networked Autonomous Systems: Delegation Participation”. Workshop paper accepted by the workshop Human Interaction With Intelligent & Networked Systems, organized by the 2009 International Conference On Intelligent User Interfaces, Sanibel Island, Florida. (http://www.iids.org)
  5. Kumar, Sirish. Performance And The Future Of Broadcast Media Lab, Performing Arts Labs, UK. http://www.pallabs.org/portfolio/timeline/may_2001_performance
    _and_the_future_of_broadcast_media_lab/ (accessed 21 june 2010)
  6. Gill, S.T., Kawamori M. Katagiri W, Shimogima A. 2000. “The Role Of Body Moves In Dialogue”. International Journal For Language And Communication (Rask), Volume 12 Pages 89-114.
  7. Abraham, Sunil. 2008. Witnessed Presence And Systems Engineering, interviews by Caroline Nevejan conducted in the context of interdisciplinary research witnessed presence and systems engineering (Faculty of Technology, Management and Policy, TU Delft & NL Net). http://www.systemsdesign.tbm.tudelft.nl/witness/interviews/sa/interview-sa.html (accessed 21-06-2010)
  8. Solomon, Debra. 2009. Collaborating In A Community: Artwork developed in the context of interdisciplinary research witnessed presence and systems engineering (Faculty Technology, Management And Policy, Tu Delft & The Netherlands Foundation For Visual Arts, Design And Architecture). Http://witness.being-here.net/page/2112/en (accessed 21-06-2010)
  9. Ophuis, Ronald. 2009. Methods For Painting. Artwork developed in the context of interdisciplinary research witnessed presence and systems engineering (Faculty Of Technology, Management And Policy, TU Delft & The Netherlands Foundation For Visual Arts, Design And Architecture). Http://Witness.Being-Here.Net/Page/2110/En (Accessed 21 June 2010).
  10. Hazra, Abhishek. 2008. Witnessed presence and systems engineering, interviews by Caroline Nevejan conducted in the context of interdisciplinary research witnessed presence and systems engineering (Faculty Technology, Management and Policy, TU Delft & NL Net). Http://www.systemsdesign.tbm.tudelft.nl/witness/interviews/ah/interview-ah.html (accessed 21-06-2010)
  11. Ilavarasan, P. Vigneswara. 2008. “Software Work In India: A Labour Process View”. An outpost of the global economy, work and workers in india’s information technology industry, eds. Carol Upadhya and A.R.Vasavi. New Delhi: Routledge.
  12. Feigl Zoro. 2009. Movement through time. Artwork developed in the context of interdisciplinary research witnessed presence and systems engineering (Faculty Of Technology, Management and Policy, TU Delft & The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture)

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1 comment

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