Data is Eating Clocks

by Venkat on January 17, 2013

It struck me recently that Marc Andreessen’s now-famous observation, that software is eating everything, has a special case that is particularly interesting for students of the history of the industrial revolution.

Data is eating clocks.

Fifteen years ago, I used to wear a watch.  One day, I lost it and never replaced it. The only time I look at a clock these days is when I have to catch a train or plane. I only think about the date when I have to sign a legal document. Most of the time, the day of the week matters more.

The clock was both a motif for the industrial revolution and a critical piece of technology driving it. Every small town in Europe gradually acquired a village clock tower. In the US, time zones emerged alongside transcontinental railroad clocks.

One reason precise time-keeping was so important in the industrial age is that when data is scarce, synchronization becomes critical to many activities. If you don’t know where your friend is, you have to set a precise  time and place to meet: “let’s meet at Starbucks at 10:30. But if you can text, you can coordinate in much looser ways: “I’ll text you when I am close to downtown and we can figure out where to meet.”

Behavior becomes more responsive to real-time situational details, and more robust to delays. Synchronization, a fragile coordination technique, becomes less necessary.

Interestingly enough, Chet Richards, a close associate of John Boyd, told me that Boyd hated the idea of synchronization, which was antithetical to his conception of maneuver warfare. Synchronization, however, was central to the idea of network-centric warfare, which is often viewed as an opposed doctrine.

I think the human world is increasingly going to become liberated from clocks and calendars. This is the literal manifestation of atemporality. Clocks will remain extremely important to coordination between artificial technologies, however. Cellphones, satellites, data centers: all need very precise clocks to talk to each other properly.

The artificial world is going through its own industrial revolution apparently, going by the increasing importance of clocks to the inner workings of technology.


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