[-empyre-] Thinking about Flow and Real-Time in Pandemic-Time: Twitter, GarageBand, and Pianos

Rebecca Rouse rebecca.rouse at his.se
Thu May 20 06:41:12 AEST 2021

Hello! Thank you Renate and Patrick for inviting me to join in this conversation. I’m a faculty member at University of Skövde in the division of Game Development, with a background in theatre, media studies, games, and design with new media like mixed and augmented reality. I am totally new to the -empyre- community and hoping I am catching the “flow” of conversation OK! I’m sharing some personal reflections below on the nature of flow and the concept of real-time, based on experiences over the past year.


Rebecca Rouse / Rebecca.Rouse at his.se


Thinking about Flow and Real-Time in Pandemic-Time: Twitter, GarageBand, and Pianos

Time is a key component of flow, and theorized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). While engaged in flow, one may lose all sense of time. As Jay David Bolter has discussed, unlike the aesthetic of catharsis, which moves to its own repletion (and resolution) flow has no end. We can never scroll to the “end” of Twitter in the same way that we could turn the final page of a book. Of course, Twitter provides us with an interactive narrative platform and network access in a way that the contemporary mass-produced codex form does not. But what has the experience of time during the pandemic-time revealed about the differences between scrolling and page turning?

Time has behaved very differently for me in these past months, when like so many others I have been confined to my own home, without the spatial mnemonic markers of time passing (like used to have when I would drive to the office in town in the morning, walk down to the cafeteria at lunchtime, drive home to the countryside in the evening, etc.) Instead, all activity is compressed into a single space. I am very grateful for this space, indeed the home has become for me like the curiosity cabinet that Joy Kenseth (1991) describes as “a world of wonders in one cabinet shut,” or like the intricate miniature carvings held within a medieval prayer nut (Kavaler 2017). But time, or rather the affective experience of time, seemed to change when threaded through this eye-of-a-needle world-in-miniature, like the miniature carvings in the Museum of Jurassic Technology (Weschler 1996). Initially, I had a feeling of speeding, at the beginning last Spring - all the work to be done to accommodate the new mode of living. Then a slowing, as the catastrophe dragged on, and new modes became naturalized. And now, waiting for our turn to be vaccinated here in Sweden, a feeling of suspension, waiting, holding breath. Spring again, but still in this same house, same walls, same desk, as if time had stopped. Today could be a year ago. Today could be yesterday, or just as easily, tomorrow.

Despite all of this, the digital realm of “real-time” has continued apace. Again, I feel gratitude here because it means I have been able to keep my job and livelihood during this time of catastrophe. But in my experience, it turns out that the real in “real-time” might not refer to human-lived reality after all, but rather the reality of the machine. Maybe “Real-time” should be called “machine-time.” The real-time of Zoom becomes exhausting after a few hours, the flow-saturated interactions of social media that used to feel like a pleasurable break from other work-paced activities now feel dull and boring. Even writing for work on the computer has become less of the norm, I’m writing more on paper again now that so much other time must be at the computer in the Zoom room, teaching or in meetings.

The “flow” I feel in the digital medium today is less interactive but more intra-active — collaborating with our six year old son to make and edit songs in GarageBand. We lose track of time. We make our own fun. That flow is between us, and while GarageBand has “real-time” editing (we can move around blocks of sound and play them back in an instant, prior to rendering a completed file) we are the ones in flow together, in a co-created experience. The interaction of platforms like Twitter, or games that emphasize “grinding” feel more and more to me like Chaplin and the assembly line. It might be amusing to watch someone else go through it (indeed Chapin is the master) but in participating myself, I become proceduralized, and do not meaningfully contribute. My time, my attention is contributed - but not my creativity. When I am finished (and I mean here only that I stop the activity; in a flow activity one can never be finished) I have nothing, only less time, less attention.

Maybe “real-time” is actually machine-time. Maybe machine-time brings us into machine-flow, by encouraging our basic human tendencies toward mimesis, transforming us into code. Science has already pre-figured us as code at core, as in genetic code. Maybe “Real-time” began long before the digital medium, with machines operated by digits that provided instant response (as in, the piano). And yet, when I play the piano, I fill our tiny house with music, I contribute creative expression (when I’ve practiced enough to do so). No matter how much I practice Twitter, it will never fill our house with music, I will never master it as a creative medium, and it will never respond to me as a creative partner. I believe computational media may be able to achieve generative, creative intra-action, but we are not there yet. Still, as I’ve written elsewhere, it is exciting to try to design systems and contexts that have these potentials, and we may draw many interesting design lessons from history in that pursuit (Rouse 2018; Rouse 2019).

Works Cited

Bolter, J. D. (2014) “The Aesthetics of Flow and the Aesthetics of Catharsis.” In: Gaafar, R., & Schulz, M. (Eds.)Technology and Desire: The Transgressive Art of Moving Images. Intellect Books. pp. 121-135.

Csikzentmihaly, M. (1990) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Kavaler, E. M. (2017) “Prayer Nuts and Early Modern Sculpture in the Netherlands.” In: Wetter, E., Scholten, F., Eds. Prayer Nuts, Private Devotion, and Early Modern Art Collecting. Abegg-Stiftung. pp. 169 - 185.

Kenseth, J. (Ed.) (1991). The Age of the Marvelous. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College.

Rouse, R. (2018) “Partners: Human and Nonhuman Performers and Interactive Narrative in Postdigital Theater.” In: Interactive Storytelling: Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer. pp. 369-382.

Rouse, R. (2019) VR and Media of Attraction: Design Lessons From History.” In: Sherman, W. (Ed.) VR Developer Gems,. Taylor and Francis CRC Press. Pp. 21-39.

Weschler, L. (1996) Mr. Wilson's cabinet of wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology. New York: Vintage.

Rebecca Rouse, (She/Her)
Senior Lecturer in Media Arts, Aesthetics, & Narration
School of Informatics, Division of Game Development
University of Skövde, Sweden
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