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Saturday, October 23, 2004

Pondering Time Travel - TiVo>Oliver Sacks>Literature and Back to TiVo 

Time traveling has been on my mind a lot lately.

It all started with getting TiV0 last year. Then my thinking was refocused somwhat by reading Oliver Sack's New Yorker article about the perception of time. It was honed a bit further by the arrival of AC's iPodder opensource project. And then took on new proportions as I was devouring The Time Traveler's Wife while on jury duty. It has now reached a fever pitch with the discovery that TiVo is teaming up with Netflix. Are you following me here? No? Hmmmm. I will try to explain. I can't promise this all comes together into a single coherent view...it's more a constellation of interrelated thoughts that are working their way through my brain these days regarding the literal and metaphorical power of time travel.

There are Two Types of People: Those of Us Who Have TiVo and...
I'd found myself quite disappointed since we got digital cable some time ago. It seemed like it was going to be such a great thing. The idea of having the Sundance Channel and IFC in addition to a wad of HBO channels was so enticing. But the reality is that once you have those options, you cannot really avail yourself of them. Movies are on all the time, some of them relatively briefly, and who can keep track of it all? I'd had this idea that I'd be watching higher quality television instead of channel surfing and it simply wasn't the case.

I'm a second generation adopter. I wait until the technology wars are straightened out and the prices come down. With the exception of Internet access, I've done this with most of technological innovations of the last decade: DVD players, Palms, camera cell phones, etc. So , so I did not run out to buy a DVR when they first hit the market. There were two options (Replay and Tivo) and I wanted to wait until there was a clear winner.

We went on vacation to Hawaii and stayed at someone's home where there was a TiV0. That was it. Once I saw "the light", I was in need. So sometime about a year ago, TiVo finally arrived at our household. And time traveling began.

No longer was our digital cable investment squandered. Now we were able to take full advantage of everything we were paying for. Simply using a wishlist with a year in it enabled us to surf all of the releases from that year, e.g., a wishlist with the keywords 'Movies' + '2003' = all of the 2003 releases playing over the next few weeks. Awesome.

TiV0 also solved the "Great Daily Show" issue of 2003. See we like to be in bed by 11:30pm. But John Stewart starts broadcasting at 11:00pm. So we can turn to Comedy Central, hit pause on TiVo, run through our daily abolutions and then return to the living room 10 to 15 minutes into the Daily Show. Using TiVO, we're just time-shifted enought to be able to speed through all of the commercials and catchup with "real-time" just as the show ends at 11:30pm. Now we're so optimized that we don't see a single commercial (hooray!) and we can stop haggling over our bedtime. We also created a Season Pass for the Daily Show, so we can skip it altogether in "real-time" if we're tired, and still never miss an episode. *Whew*

So TiVo began changing our perception of time in some ways. We never see commercials. We only see television that we really want to see because TiVo always has something on that is of interest. And we no longer suffer under they tyranny of the broadcast schedule.

Wiping Your Nose vs. Catching Flies
So I was thinking somewhat about the nature of time due to the arrival of TiVo in my life when I read Oliver Sacks' amazing New Yorker article this summer about the perception of time (nicely summarized here by Old Rottenhat). The article begins by discussing the magic of time lapse photography and the ideas of HG Wells on time travel which fed into his creation of The Time Machine.

In the article, Sacks' relates his discovery that those who suffer from certain neurological disorders experience time quite differently. One subject moves so slowly in "wiping his nose" that Sacks' couldn't verify his claim to be moving at all without time lapse photography.

One of Sacks' Tourette's patients was aware of experiencing many more tics than Sacks could observe with his naked eye. They only became visible to the good doctor with the aid of a frame-by-frame analysis. Far more astonishing is Sacks' comment that some Tourette's patients apparently can snatch flies from the air due because in their perception of time flies move relatively slowly.

Sacks posits that perhaps we can learn to induce these perceptual states in ourselves on purpose in order to apply ourselves more effectively to specific tasks. In other words, we might learn to induce a form of locally-focused time travel.

The Amazing Adam Curry
I had the good fortune to work with Adam for three years back in the mid-90's. Adam has been a surfer riding the crest of multiple waves of cultural change. He was a VJ at MTV and left at the height of his career to found what one of the first web developments firm in The City. Then he left that company in 1998 to return to his hometown of Amsterdam to found a broadband technology company. Most recently, AC has surfaced with iPodder, an opensource software project.

iPodder allows you to download audio blogs to your iPod. You can schedule what you want to listen to and when you sync your Pod, iPodder downloads whatever you have scheduled. Essentially, iPodder is TiV0 for web-based audio files. This project has caught on like wildfire and so once again his fans (and even his detractors) must acknowledge that AC has an unerring nose for the ideas of the future.

Now having contemplated TiVO, the Sacks article, and Adam's new accomplishment, I began thinking that part of what is so enticing about the concept of time travel is the concept of choice. I don't like what is going on WHEN I am, so I switch to another TIME where I think I will enjoy myself more.

A Gift Without a Manual
Audrey Niffenegger's extraordinary first novel The Time Traveler's Wife was my companion for a long and silly bout of jury duty in September. The best thing about suffering through an extended voire dire was the opportunity to devour this book.

I don't want to tell you too much about it, but the basic elements can be shared without spoiling your reading experience. Due to a genetic disorder, the protagonist is a time traveler. He cannot, however, control where or when he goes. The challenge of "when" exists on two levels: he cannot choose to time travel, he just does. And where he goes is totally beyond his control as well.

Part of what is so engaging about Neffenegger's work is that while we often fantasize about time travel as being in some part about control, Neffenegger's protagonist - much like Sacks' patients - has no control over his abilities. He just is. And it's a pretty dangerous "gift" to have. He arrives to each "other" time entirely naked. And he cannot seem to change anything. What is also engaging is her exploration of what it might mean to love someone who comes and goes without warning in this way. It's a beautiful, terrifying and terribly romantic novel. It probably would have made this list had I read it earlier.

This novel has stayed with me. Specifically, the issue of having this uncontrollable experience of time travel has kept me thinking for quite some time.

Time Keeps on Slipping, Slipping, Slipping...
At the end of September, TiVo and Netflix announced a partnership.

Now I've been meaning to write about Netflix for a while. A year or so after my father died, K. came up with the brilliant idea of getting my mother a Netflix subscription. Mom loves movies, isn't much for going to the videostore (too overwhelming), and she's got plenty more time on her hands these days. So I log into Netflix and program her queue. It's so much FUN. I send her movies I know she'll like, films that might stretch her boundaries a bit, and whatever else her friends have recommended to her.

Netflix makes this all so easy. The DVDs arrive with return envelopes, so when she's done she just throws them in the mailbox. No trips to the store. And since the account is linked to my email, I always know when she's returned a movie and I can ask how she liked it the next time I call. Where TiVo has been a brilliant thing for K. and I, Netflix is the technology that has enabled me to bring quality entertainment to my mother on a regular basis. And I mean regular. She averages about 6 or 7 movies from Netflix each month.

The TiVo/Netflix partnership sounds like you will be able to order a movie from Netflix and have it downloaded to your TiVo within a few hours. HOW COOL IS THAT? The TiVo/Netflix library should be much larger than Pay Per View.

So now we have the prospect of even greater control over what we see on the great black box in our living room. But as the experience of our hero in The Time Traveler's Wife bears out, this "magic" is somewhat illusory.

Obviously we will now have an extraordinary range of choice in this regard which some will undoubtedly find paralyzing. But until we can learn to imbue ourselves with the tantalyzing abilities that Sacks proposes where we can alter our perception of time and our abilities to function within time, we will still stand the risk of squandering the gift of time itself.

9 comments
Comments:
I believe it was Buckaroo Banzai who said very aptly: "the only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once..."

imagine a world without time...or a world without a distinction between past and future...

recently, some quantum physicists have said that we/they cannot figure out why (based on any fundamental 'quantum physical' evidence) it is that we cannot see the future as clearly as we can 'see' the past (which is to say, with rose colored glasses, I suppose), or why it is that we can plan for the future and thereby 'change' the outcome of some future event, and yet, we can not 'change' the outcome of the past. there appears to be no provable, understandable reason for why this is the case....and yet, this is a fundamental assumption (that we all make) about our everyday lives, the assumption that we cannot 'change' the past, and that we cannot 'see' the future.

hmmm...maybe we are shortchanging ourselves...based on our own perceived limitations...after all, "argue long enough for your limitations, and they are yours"

there are even more interesting theories about the possibility that perhaps time as a dimension doesn't 'really' exist, but I can't get my head around them enough to begin to explain them yet...so, another time, perhaps...no pun intended.

for a totally different perspective on time, consider this - these days, I, and a growing contingent of others, are heeding the age-old advice of the Zen masters, who urge us all to (attempt to) live in this very moment, the moment called now, because this is the closest thing to reality that we can truly experience...as only this very moment exists.

of course, others will tell you that even this moment doesn't exist for many of us, so long as we mistake this dream we call our life as our true reality...

just something to think about...

anyway, for those interested in time and other related philosophical matters, you might want to check out a flick now playing called "what the bleep do we know?"

also, there is a website of a supposed time traveler named john titor... http://www.johntitor.com/

enjoy,
clay
 
Hey Clay,

How in the world did you stumble into the John Titor story? Interesting whether fact or imaginative hoax.

You really should read "The Time Traveler's Wife".
 
I learned about John Titor from Sushil. apparently Harjot Gandhi is all agog about it.

cheers,
clay

pa, and check out the movie if you get a chance.
 
I recently finished The Time Traveler's Wife, and I am so utterly haunted by it. If you're interested, another clever novel that deals with time travel is Replay by Ken Grimwood.
 
Neat! Did you just happen to read it or did you read this first? And what haunts you? Inquiring minds want to know!

About "Replay", I just added it to my Amazon cart for my next order (I let stuff aggregate there for a bit). So thanks for the recommendation. Out of curiousity, did you find it just clever or did it move you as "TTTW" did?

(I'm guessing this is JM from HiP writing?)
 
I actually read your post, and it reminded me of Replay. So, I ran out and got TTTW. As far as what's haunting me... First, it was just one of the most touching love stories I've ever read. Second, I can't stop thinking about Clare living out her widowed life hoping against hope that Henry will make one of his rare appearances in the future (her present). As for Replay, it's most definitely moving, as opposed to merely clever, though the love story is not quite as central as in TTTW. Enjoy!
 
Excellent. Replay is definitely the next in line on my list of novels then. I'll probably try to get it in over Thanksgiving vacation. Thank you!
 
I couldn't help but wonder if someone had optioned TTTW for a movie. Look what I found on the Web:

The Time Traveler's Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Buyer: New Line
Producer: Jennifer Aniston, Brad Grey, Brad Pitt, Nick Wechsler
Logline: A man has a gene that causes him to involuntarily time-travel, appearing at different times in his life. The condition is brought on by stress and bad memories, and his lover has no idea when or if he will reappear as he is sent back to various traumatic moments.
Side Note: Book is loosely based on "The Odyssey." The film will be produced by Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, Jennifer Aniston and Nick Wechsler. It will be a co-production between Wechsler's Industry and the as-yet-unnamed production shingle formed by Pitt, Grey and Aniston.
 
November 28th, 2004

OK. So I read REPLAY over this Thanksgiving weekend. It was a good recommendation and I enjoyed it quite a bit. So thank you, Anonymous.

That said, I do think that REPLAY is a lesser work that TTTW. The quality of the REPLAY's writing is straightforward and effective. But for me it didn't compare with Neffenegger's clear, lyrical prose.

Additionally, I think that the structure of Neffenegger's book is much more interesting. Whereas REPLAY allows its protagonist to change the future and retravels several times over the same temporal line making changes with new twists, somehow the rules of TTTW are feel far more emotionally complex, even though - or especially because - the protagonist *cannot* change history.

Perhaps most frustrating to me was how REPLAY came so close to and then let slip a huge opportunity to weave relevant Eastern and Western mystical texts on consciousness, awakening, and the eternal nature of the higher Self (i.e., atman/monad/seed.) The Starsea plotline also suggests some missed opportunities to formally weave a chain of existing modern mystical works into the story and thereby possibly to inspire some greater understanding within the fictional context.

(Perhaps the most obvious example of a similar opportunity seized is John Crowley's AEGYPT (http://tinyurl.com/6b23w).

Nonetheless, I *do* recommend REPLAY to readers of this site who are interested in the topic of this particular post. It's a good vacation read and it will keep you thinking.
 
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