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Published in IT World
October 18, 2005

An atomic sense of time

By Sean Mc Grath

From time to time, even bloggers like me make contact with physical reality. When we do, our senses kick in and focus on things other than screens, mice, keyboards and caffeine sources. Senses are wonderful things and not a day at the keyboard goes by when I do not rue the fact that I don't really use mine too much.

In geek terminology, senses are reactive devices. They are magnets for sensory data, perusers of event streams. Event streams which, to one way of thinking, are literally the source of time. Time is the concept that results when consciousness sees things changing state. Events are what happens when things change. Senses are the things we humans use to witness those events. Perhaps.

What does it mean for sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch to be reactive in nature? I may say to myself "I will now reach out with my eyes into the vicinity of the red rose that I know is over there and I will experience it.", but I cannot do so. All I can do is haul my eyes into the vicinity of said red rose and wait until the light bouncing off it, jumps up and hits my retina. I am a peruser of event streams. A leech on the skin of time.

When I blog, I metamorphose myself for brief moments into an event stream source. I change things. Changing things triggers events. Other people and other processes, peruse the event stream I create. I feed the leeches.

I do this with a 'feed'. A periodically emitted atom [1] of change. Something to react to. Something to sense. Something to indicate the very passage of time.

What if we drag the red rose onto the web? What would that involve? Well, in the digital world, we work with representations of things, rather than smelly, oily visually arresting reality. Let us give our rose a URL:


Now. How would you know it is on the web? You need to move your virtual eyes over to the corner of the web so that the photons it emits can be sensed. In English, you point your browser at it and trigger the creation of a representation with the incantation:

   GET / HTTP1.1

Interesting. You need to trigger the creation of a representation on this web thing. They do not spontaneously erupt. It is as if you switched on the light (a photon gun), illuminating this dark corner of the web, so that your browser could "see" the photons bouncing off the the URL. Unlike nature? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

So what happens now? Imagine you have seen the rose on the Web. What is on your mind now? No point in staring at an unchanging rose all day is there? No information content in that!

The next interesting thing that could happen would be for the rose to change state. You have a choice here. You can make a reminder to yourself to keep looking at the rose from time to time. Alternatively, you could have virtual eyes do it for you. After all, you have better things to do with your time than spend it watching things that are not changing. So much change, so little time.

Think about what you do all day. How much of it is down to responding to change? Quite a proportion I would imagine. How much business activity revolves around how things change with respect to time? Prices, stock levels, revenues, manufacturing rates, these are all examples of things that change with respect to time. Things for which monitoring any changes is key to the way we work.

Technologies like Atom and RSS, originally heralded as tools to allow diary-oriented web-pages (weblogs) and diary-oriented feeds to be mass produced, are something much grander to my mind.

They are nothing less than the addition of a new dimension to the web.

The dimension of time.

It seems so central to me now that I cannot understand how the original web was in any way interesting without it.

[1] http://www.atomenabled.org/