The recent viewer furor over NBC's Olympic coverage, highlights an important point: The Internet is fundamentally transforming our perception of time.
Sustained by real-time Twitter updates and constantly updated news feeds, we are now increasingly addicted to what happens the moment it happens. Forget prime time. Forget "time shifting". For many people, what happens in real life should happen in real-time, not on a tape delay.
Even before the London 2012 Olympics, a fundamental tension between these “synchronous” and “asynchronous” notions of time was starting to splinter technology users into two distinct camps.
Those in the “synchronous” camp prefer all of their updates, communications and relationships to take place in real-time. They embrace Twitter and text messaging; they check in throughout the day to see what their friends are doing; they place a higher value on “live” over recorded events and they subscribe to the idea of synchronizing the content on their tablets and smart phones using the almighty cloud.
Those in the “asynchronous” camp take a completely different view of time. They enjoy the ease and convenience of DVRs, and prefer daily, weekly or monthly digests of news rather than the continuous rattle-and-hum of nonstop updates. They have no desire to synchronize all of their content across various digital devices. They also much prefer the distance and time that communication via email confers, replying whenever they want.
The Internet’s emerging tyranny of the real-time turns all of that upside down.
It is a tyranny because it forces us to take action in ways that we may not want to. It means that each of us now feels a strange responsibility to keep our friends and followers updated about what we are doing at any given moment. It forces us to keep our mobile devices close at hand at all times, just so that we don’t “miss” anything. And, finally, it confers status on those who perpetuate this tyranny — those who want to be the “first” to break news about anything, even if it’s just minutes before anyone else. If you’re not first, it just doesn’t seem to matter because it means you’re not living your life in real-time. Thus, we’re monitoring the Olympics on tiny screens during our lunch breaks because it seems important to know right now who won and who lost, not because we necessarily care about gymnastics, swimming or basketball. We battle to keep others from ruining our night with spoilers.
How the Internet changes our perception of time is more than just a game played out between tech giants competing for our limited viewing attention. It’s starting to influence things such as politics and education.
Case in point: The Romney campaign announced "Mitt's VP" mobile app Tuesday — an app that seems to have the sole purpose of pushing an alert to you as soon as Romney taps his vice presidential running mate. As a Romney supporter or political news junkie, if you want to be able to tell everyone first about the VP pick, this is the app for you.
In the world of education, the “asynchronous” camp is taking on the “synchronous” market leaders. The ability to watch pre-recorded lectures and earn credit for online courses completed in your own personal time is disrupting the traditional classroom model of “live” instructors and “live” tests. One could argue that the disruption within the world of education seems so dramatic because of this fundamental shift from a synchronous experience to an asynchronous experience.
Judging by the public debate that we’re having over NBC and its coverage of the Olympics, the “synchronous” camp appears to be winning — at least for now, leaving many of us feeling like our lives have become surrealist Slavador Dali landscapes of melted clocks and imperfect memories.
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