Beyond runtime: Towards a postdigital temporality

Kevin Walker, Helga Schmid

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Clock time is usually treated as external, universal and fixed, but this is a fiction. The clock obscures a whole political and economic infrastructure, and its role in commerce and colonisation has resulted in ‘syncholonialism’ as Stamatia Portanova terms it. The digital clock reaches even further into our culture and consciousness. The roots of network time stretch back to the first astronomical observations, with increasing precision and standardisation culminating in the start of ‘Unix Time’ and Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) in 1970. Now digital time, along with all its underlying values, is built into the technology products found in every country on Earth, increasingly colonising and structuring the temporality of individuals and entire cultures.

While computers operate at microsecond timescales, acceleration is not the core issue. Blockchain technology, like Unix Time, assumes a single, linear time consisting of a list transactions. Videogames treat the passage of time as a form of energy that is progressively dispersed. But the computer can also treat time as information to be endlessly manipulated, as events or states, or as an invisible yet universal utility that makes processing (change) possible. The past constitutes data for remixing, the present is ‘runtime’, and the future is programmable through branching simulations and prediction. Consequences become ever more computable, but decisions remain subjective, as Alfred Gell writes.

What happens when this universalising, abstract conceptualisation of time-as-resource meets subjective human bodies and cultures? By merging anthropology with philosophy and artistic research, we aim to show how time has become privatised, labour has become programmable, and the clock has become harmful to our individual and collective health and wellbeing. In this paper we detail how computers and their programmers conceptualise time, how an ontology of quantification and measurement is baked into the technologies that impact human and natural ecologies, and how a postdigital approach to time might instead embrace a multiplicity of individual and cultural temporalities.

Specifically, we can disentangle computing from capital accumulation on the one hand, and from digital time on the other, by returning to Heinz von Foerster’s definition of computing (from computare) literally meaning to reflect or contemplate (putare) things in concert (com-), without any explicit reference to numerical quantities. Here computation constitutes any operation that transforms, modifies, re-arranges, or orders observed physical entities (objects) or their representations (symbols).

Other computing practices can inform a postdigital temporality – for example time-sharing, analogous to time banking but without the monetary metaphor. Object-oriented programming treats objects as philosopher David Lewis does – as having a temporal as well as spatial identity, thus capable of change over time. Sleep mode, wait states, multithreading – our understanding of both technology and time is rooted in language. But we can reject the language of classification and measurement in favour of the poetic, while also embracing the sensory, the emotional and the spiritual, which no language can capture. Thereby, we hope to bring insights from computing into the temporal everyday, and conversely to inform a different approach to technology development with artistic, ethnographic and philosophical ideas.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 20 Feb 2023
EventReanimating Human-Machine Interaction: Reflecting on Interdisciplinary Methods - University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium
Duration: 6 May 20236 May 2023


ConferenceReanimating Human-Machine Interaction


  • time
  • temporality
  • clock
  • uchronia
  • computation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • General Computer Science


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