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Real Time/Zero Time
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Like hard-core pornography, about which U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart notoriously said, “I know it when I see it,” the phrase “real time” may be much easier to spot than to define. What digital media scholars see as evidence of real time—the copresence, for instance, of an event and its live stream on the Web—is different from what computer scientists refer to when they talk about real-time computing, which is a system’s mission-critical aspect: for example, an air bag inflates before a driver is thrown through the windshield. Or consider the phrase itself: real time is not real-time or realtime; the noun refers to a certain temporality, while the adjective form can refer to speed, rate of change, or interactivity; real time can be a synonym for virtuality, or even its putative opposite, realness.

The trouble with real time is not the proliferation of definitions, which should be welcomed; the trouble is that we too often confuse real time with the medium that manifests it. Whereas digital media scholars see real time as synonymous with the temporality of computer networks, television scholars might see real time in terms of the liveness of television broadcasts, while film scholars may find it in the moving image’s seeming continuity, a motion simulated by twenty-four frames a second. This leads to confusion between cause and effect. Consider, for example, art historian Michael Newman, who invokes the term when writing of the ethical stakes of analog cinema in the face of digitization. For Newman, digital technology leaves in its wake “interchangeable media in the global simultaneity of ‘real’ time.” The words he uses to discuss the regime of the digital are striking, because “‘real’ time” aptly describes the very thing he opposes to digital media: analog cinema.

Quoting a character of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who exclaims that “by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve,” Mary Ann Doane has suggested that electricity produced instantaneity roughly a hundred years before digital technologies such as the Internet. In her investigation of films such as the Execution of Czolgosz (1901), in which bodies were burned with electricity and other stimuli, she notes that electricity generates a virtually instantaneous bodily response—the “nerve” of the world. By “annihilating delay,” electricity tied together the globe, producing its own “global simultaneity.” Electricity also pointed to the delay or “dead time” that occurs between action and response in everyday life. Doane uses this idea to argue that by structuring time through narrative and editing, cinema achieves a “maximum reduction of wasted time,” a “‘real time’ that is much more ‘real’ than ‘real time’ itself.” In other words, a hundred years before Newman’s critique of global simultaneity, cinema too was billed as global, simultaneous, a “real time” medium that annihilated all earlier forms of media.

What my example suggests is that real time may at the present moment be synonymous with digital technology, but the term is much more malleable; it has a way of adhering to the latest technology. Within the history of computer technology, the effort to locate the earliest moment of real time often results in ever more diffuse examples. We know that real-time technologies came largely out of the machine of war; we know, for instance, that the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system, deployed in 1958 to track incoming Soviet bombers, was the first computer system that offered the ability to interact with the screen in real time and led to the first real-time business applications. The phrase is first used in J. P. Eckert’s 1946 description of a digital “‘real time’ computing machine” that might replace analog (or “true”) computing machines in gun positioning, missile guidance, flight simulation, and industrial control. Eckert limits himself to four applications, because analog devices would have been considered more suitable for real-time applications than their cumbersome digital counterparts. It would take a decade and a half for this advantage to change. But open our historiography to analog technologies—such as the radar screen, which Lev Manovich argues was the first screen continuously updated with real-time information—and locating a start...

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