Internet time clock/watch

If you enter Centre Georges Pompidou, a cultural complex in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, and you wander around the basement, you may run across the clock represented on the right. The device looks rather standard, except for the colorful cogs, perhaps shown here as an echo of the high-tech architecture of the whole building. Another oddity you might notice is the LED display which gives a digital indication of the time, and a mysterious 3 digit number next to an "at" symbol.

This combination ("@ 452") corresponds to a new way to display time, envisioned by Swatch, a Swiss watch company. The idea was to divide up the mean solar day up into 1000 parts called ".beats" (which means that a ".beat" last 26.4 seconds). Each day begins at @000 .beats, which actually corresponds to midnight in Switzerland (CET: Central European Time) and the Internet noon is thus @500 (3am in San Francisco, 6am in New York). This simply means there are no time zones, and only time scale called "Biel Mean Time" (BMT), based on the city where the company's headquarters are located.

Besides this big clock, one may find such .beats on Swatch watches as well certain cell phone models, a video game and Linux GUIs. Apart from the company website, this "new" time display is now quite uncommon, but it should not prevent us to wonder about its origin as well as its cultural implications.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Swiss company first presented the idea for "Internet Time" back in 1998 at the MIT Medialab's Junior Summit:

"The gathering of more than ninety children aged 10 to 16 from 54 countries was organized to discuss technology's impact on the younger generation. Swatch is a major sponsor of the Lab and has been for about five years. The idea was that far-flung people would use Internet Time to coordinate their schedules and socializing"

Also, this new time standard was supposed to be used for the Nation.1 project, a conceptual country based on the Internet and owned, populated and governed by the children of the world (!).

Aside from this intriguing origin, this "internet time" based on .beats is interesting from a cultural perspective for various reasons.

First, it is important to frame this project as one of the many initiatives to measure and manage time. Over the course of history, scientific and technical discoveries have led to the design of curious apparatuses to display the "passage of time". Think about how sand, oil, candles, ropes, sticks, mechanical pieces or nuclear technologies have enabled this. It's thus not surprising to see "the Internet" as part of an assemblage devoted to measuring time. However, unlike the usage of sand or oil to measure time, the idea here is not to use the technology (network infrastructure). The point is, instead, to benefit from the sort of temporal synchronicity created by the usage of internet platforms (email, Web, etc.) and claim the importance to live in a similar timeframe. Swatch internet time was meant to get rid of time differences and have a common reference. Said differently, it's as if the Swiss company had declared local time and place irrelevant. This is all good and nice except for a fact: the "origin" .beat (@ 000) corresponds to where their headquarters are located, which is not exactly very egalitarian.

Nevertheless, even if this "internet time" sounds curious and may have looked cool, this new time format suffered from path-dependence: " how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions one has made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant". This phenomenon seems always an issue when it comes to changing people's habits.

Why do I blog this? documenting the subtleties of our everyday life.


Being interested in the role of algorithms and their influence on everyday life, i started collecting examples under the #curiousrituals hashtag. Perhaps it's a follow-up to Curious Rituals, perhaps it isn't. Some intriguing cases I've found recently (most of them comes from the non-scientific press, as i'm focusing on everyday life):

Music generated with script and played by fake users get a good ranking on online music charts

"Melbourne hacker and payments security professional Peter Filimore, who, it should be mentioned, cannot play or sing a single note, managed to accrue $1,000 in royalties and knock artists like Pink, Nicki Minaj, and Flume off high spots in online music charts through the use of bots.

In an effort to uncover security flaws in online streaming services like Spotify, Filimore decided to send “garbage” tunes to the top of the charts and generate royalties in the process. Filimore started by using algorithms to compile public domain audio and splicing cheesy MIDI tracks together.

Filimore then purchased three Amazon-linked compute instances — virtual servers that are able to run applications — and created a simple hacking script to simulate three listeners playing his songs 24-hours a day for a month, while accruing reviews that described his music as “rubbish.” [...] Filimore also explained that using a larger cluster of computing instances could potentially generate thousands of dollars in fraudulent royalties. "

Are Face-Detection Cameras Racist?

"When Joz Wang and her brother bought their mom a Nikon Coolpix S630 digital camera for Mother's Day last year, they discovered what seemed to be a malfunction. Every time they took a portrait of each other smiling, a message flashed across the screen asking, "Did someone blink?" No one had. "I thought the camera was broken!" Wang, 33, recalls. But when her brother posed with his eyes open so wide that he looked "bug-eyed," the messages stopped.

Wang, a Taiwanese-American strategy consultant who goes by the Web handle "jozjozjoz," thought it was funny that the camera had difficulties figuring out when her family had their eyes open. So she posted a photo of the blink warning on her blog under the title, "Racist Camera! No, I did not blink... I'm just Asian!""

Bot wars - The arms race of restaurant reservations in SF

"After a while of running this script I had captured a good amount of data. One day I found myself looking at it and noticed that as soon as reservations became available on the website (at 4am), all the good times were immediately taken and were gone by 4:01am. It quickly became obvious that these were reservation bots at work. [...] You fight fire with fire, so I made my own reservation bot. You can get the code here. I used mechanize to create a simple ruby script that goes through the process of checking for available reservations (in a given time range) and making a reservation under your name. With this script I was able to start getting reservations again, but I know that this bot war will continue to escalate."

"Scans made by some Xerox copiers are changing numbers on documents, a German computer scientist has discovered. [...] He said the anomaly is caused by Jbig2, an image compression standard. Image compression is typically used to make file sizes smaller. Jbig2 would substitute figures it thought were the same, meaning similar numbers were being wrongly swapped."

Google’s autocompletion: algorithms, stereotypes and accountability

You might have come across the latest UN Women awareness campaign. Originally in print, it has been spreading online for almost two days. It shows four women, each “silenced” with a screenshot from a particular Google search and its respective suggested autocompletions. [...] Guess what was the most common reaction of people?

They headed over to Google in order to check the “veracity” of the screenshots, and test the suggested autocompletions for a search for “Women should …” and other expressions.

This awareness campaign has been very successful in making people more aware of the sexism in our world Google’s autocomplete function.

When Roommates Were Random

As soon as today’s students receive their proverbial fat envelope from their top choice college, they are on Facebook meeting other potential freshmen. They are on sites like and, scoping out prospective friends. By the time the roommate application forms arrive, many like-minded students with similar backgrounds have already connected and agreed to request one another.

It’s just one of many ways in which digital technologies now spill over into non-screen-based aspects of social experience. I know certain people who can’t bear to eat in a restaurant they haven’t researched on Yelp. And Google now tailors searches to exactly what it thinks you want to find.

But this loss of randomness is particularly unfortunate for college-age students, who should be trying on new hats and getting exposed to new and different ideas. Which students end up bunking with whom may seem trivial at first glance. But research on the phenomenon of peer influence — and the influences of roommates in particular — has found that there are, in fact, long-lasting effects of whom you end up living with your first year.

Why do I blog this? I've started collecting examples like this in the past few months. Might be the beginning of something, you never know. What I find intriguing here is that there are various types of influences for such algorithms: sometimes it's a "framing" where the user's agency is limited (the racist camera for instance), sometimes it's not (you're not forced to use recommendation engines). I'm thinking about building a typology perhaps, collecting these, talking to people, there's a whole list to be built

Common misconceptions about design research

Last week I gave a two-days workshop about design research. It was part of a week-long seminar aimed at masters students from the two local design schools (HEAD–Genève and ECAL). We went through a quite intense set of activities ranging from lectures to drawing sessions, visit to the library, long arguments and exquisite corpse-like activities. My first objective was to describe what design research is, and the second to help students come up with "the research question", which looks like a Holy Grail for lots of them. We had various conversations about what research is, and how it's related to design. In doing so, lots of issues bubbled up to the surface and it was strikingly intriguing to list them. I took some notes about these and I turned it into a short presentation about the misconceptions about design research.

  1. Design research is what's produced when you don't have a client. It's personal project Well, this was a common perspective offered by students at the beginning. As we discussed, it seems that the way "research" is used in some of the participants' background lead them to think that we do research only when there's no problem to solve, no brief from a client. Research, in the academic sense, is about generating knowledge. What does it mean in a design context? Well, this quote by Bruce Archer express differently: “Design Research is a systematic search for and acquisition of knowledge related to design and design activity.” It's also a misconception because research projects are not done in a vacuum: there's a need to refer to the existing knowledge produced by other researchers, and funding bodies definitely influence what they want to fund. Also research can be "personal" but in general there's more than one person involved (colleagues, research partners...).
  2. Design research is what you do before designing a prototype, like user research for instance. The problem here is that design research is not limited to field research/ethnography. A relevant model to consider here is the one described by Christopher Frayling with the famous trichotomy of research about (e.g. history of design), for (e.g. ethnography to surface insights for design), and through design (discovering new insights/building theories based on artifact design). Design research corresponds to these three elements, but the third one is the most important... because of the relationship between theory and practice... which leads us to the third misconception:
  3. Design leads to artifacts (products) it doesn't produce theories. Yes, design produces artifacts but it doesn't mean that you cannot derive/generate theoretical insights based on this. The way objects are used, produced, repurposed can offer various perspectives that can be turned into different levels of theories, as showed by this quote from Alain Findeli: "due to his/her involvement in the object, the researcher will raise new questions, discover new approaches, and if he/she has talent, produce new theoretical models. I propose to call this method project-driven research". To discuss what it means practically, we used "Strong Concepts: Intermediate-Level Knowledge in Interaction Design Research" by Höök and Löwgren to discuss this. The paper describes a spectrum of knowledge one can abstract from particular design instances.
  4. Design research produces bad design. What designers express with this is their disappointment when they see the outcome of design research projects: artifacts which are not in line with the Zeitgeist or with tacit design criteria; and of course it's also related with certain fonts used on researchers slides, the lack of attention to certain graphic details (someone in class wondered about the 2-columns ACM template) and, above all, the fact that artifacts they see do not correspond to their level of expectations as designers (regardless of the theoretical insights produced). That's a good one as it's not so much of a misconception. There's indeed a lot of bad design outputs in design research and the community needs to do better. However, there are lots of exceptions to this and, the fact that artifacts produced by design researchers are bad does not mean that one cannot do better! As examples, we looked at various cases: Auger-Loizeau's Carnivorous Robots, Fabian Hemmert's work, as well as our own Curious Rituals.

Why do I blog this? Nothing better than a skeptical audience to learn how to frame your research topic/contribution. This seminar was highly stimulating. Plus, these misconceptions are interesting not only because there's a need to correct then. Most of them reveal how research is normative and it's sometimes good to push the boundaries a little bit!

Data science and “methodolatry”, the aestheticization and idolization of method.

(Someone counting the number of car near a roundabout in Nantes, France)

"Methodolatry and the Art of Measure by Shannon Mattern is an interesting piece that Jan sent me this morning. It addresses the implications of "urban data science", i.e. citizen scientists, public labs, urban explorers, infrastructural tourists generating and collecting their own data on one end of the spectrum, civic hackers on the other.

Both share the same "way of conceptualizing and operationalizing the city" and an "instrumental rationality/solutionism”... what the author calls “methodolatry,” the aestheticization and idolization of method. The author describes how the relationships between the urban environment and data with different historical pointers showing how cities are "'machine' for efficient circulation". She also refers to different claims by Lewis Munford, Friedrick Kittler and Ola Söderström which are quite relevant.

Some excerpts I found interesting:

"Is there an ethos, a value system, driving these data-generated processes, or is it all just algorithms? Of course, we wouldn’t say that there’s no ideology inherent in the algorithms themselves, but the computers powering these Big Data projects run billions of operations that cumulatively produce substantive transformations in the urban landscape, with little regard for underlying values (...) sometimes the most readily apparent or accessible way — for students in particular — to gain entry to those complex practices is to take on the aesthetics of measurement: to devise a clever data collection system, to accumulate a reassuringly big pile of data, and to massage that data into a persuasive visualization. That’s a worrisome trend. This isn’t to say that engagement with the affective or stylistic dimensions of measurement precludes engagement with its larger methodological functions; Feyerabend has shown us otherwise. Rather, I hope these concerns are brought into alignment: that the methodological packaging suits the purpose, the form serves the function, the knolling serves the knowledge. (...) perhaps these methodolatrous projects, in their aestheticization of measurement, are calling our attention to presumptions about scientific rigor, parodying our algorithmic impulses, tacitly asking questions about the ideology of a pervasive culture of measurement and assessment. Perhaps, despite their implicit alliance with CUSP and Cisco and the like, our citizen data gatherers want to highlight the “givenness,” the rhetorical nature of that data, to show its inherent irrationality, to demonstrate that the “science of cities” is also, necessarily, an art."

Why do I blog this? An interesting addition to the debates about data science and smart cities. Certainly a good complement to Adam Greenfield's "Against the Smart City".

8-bit reggae project

Being a reggae/dub amateur for quite some time, I always wanted to write about it. The lack of time, and the remote character of this topic wrt to other interests made me postpone this for a long time. Last year, I started becoming intrigued by a sub-genre where artists play reggae with 8-bit machines... and I thought this would be a peculiar research topic for the Geneva bureau of the Laboratory.

So... after conducting a series of interview with musicians, a copious literature review about the history of reggae/chiptune and an analysis of technological artifacts used by performers (things like modified C64 SID turned into dub machines)... it seems the final correction has been made on the "8-bit reggae" manuscript and Etienne (Editions Volumiques) is currently working on the page layout. The idea is to have a paper-booklet on which the reader can use his phone to access media content (music, video); without a QR code (this is important as I find them annoying). To be released at the beginning of 2014!

The book is a description of how the world of reggae/dub collided with the one of video games... and how it led the birth of an intriguing, and original form of culture. It's the occasion to introduce the idea of "machine creolization" – the role of machines/algorithms in the hybridization of culture – an important feature of contemporary culture. The effort is now on working on other projects related with this concept.

Talking about the book project recently, I've been asked several times if I could give "an introduction" or "a playlist" to this subgenre, here it is!

  1. Jahtari X Uprooted Sunshine: Level Up!
  2. Disrupt/JAHTARI - They Lie
  3. Jody Bigfoot - NINTEMPO RIDDIM
  4. LEGO SOUNDS - Dubologist encephalogram
  5. Helgeland 8-bit Squad - Psybeam Riddim
  6. BitBurner - Shroom Roots
  7. Jody Bigfoot -Kob Dub (cant think of a name for this tune remix)
  8. Helgeland 8-bit Squad - Pai Mei Riddim
  9. wellwellsound - Billie jean
  10. LEGO SOUNDS - Dub Adub Abeba

Why do I blog this? Update on a project rarely mentioned on this blog!