Digital Culture

Just a minute?

Perception of time in real and digital space

By Marleen Heine, Maja Lonardoni & Jasmin Eberhard

When you ask a group to estimate the duration of one minute, the results vary greatly. So the feeling for time is very subjective. But what factors influence it? And are there differences in the perception of time in the real and digital worlds? We have dealt with these questions in the following text.

What influences our perception of time?

In this context, one has to differentiate between the prospective and the retrospective. In the here and now, for example, time passes quickly when there is time pressure or urgency and when there is a lot of variety. Fun, relaxation and progress also contribute to time passing. Physical factors can also influence the perception of time. The lower the body temperature, the shorter we estimate one minute. The same happens when we consume caffeine, alcohol, cocaine or ecstasy. In general, time passes faster when one or more sensory organs are addressed, i.e. when there is a full interval.

In contrast, time passes slowly when there is no task at hand and especially when meditating. Even when we concentrate on time and when we are bored, afraid, routine and sad, time just creeps along. In general, time passes slowly when there is an empty interval, i.e. no sensory organs are addressed. Drugs like cannabis are also a reason for slow time perception.

In retrospective, the factors get a little mixed up. For example, in retrospect, childhood seems to us to be very long, although it was very varied and marked by new influences. As we grow older, time flies by, even though we no longer have so many tasks and are much more routine. This is due to the proportionality of age. As a one-year-old, one year is 100% of life, as an 80-year-old it is only one eightieth.

How does the use of digital media change our perception of time?

In everyday life, procedures and processes are accelerated in order to lose as little time as possible. In the DB app we buy the train ticket without having to get it at the last second behind a queue at a vending machine. The timetable is directly integrated and individualized so that we don't have to go to the station to get information. We do not even have to carry the BahnCard with us. It is stored in the personal digital account and linked to our tickets. In every situation, a simple grip on the mobile phone is enough to make a purchase, search, during the journey and during a check. Changes and developments are also happening quickly. For example, if we compare the development from bicycle to car with the development time of today's technologies, we see that progress is happening faster.
If we use digital media, we must bear in mind that there is a gap between digital and real time. We quickly check the news, look at the stories on Instagram and refresh our knowledge with Google. This makes time go by much faster. In the real world, however, it passes more slowly and we live more consciously. The perception of time is influenced by the type of occupation. Sometimes it feels to us as if time is passing faster. Especially if we keep looking at our mobile phone quickly. This is due to the constant immersion in the digital world, which means that we do not take conscious breaks. Many of you will surely notice the over-consumption of digital media. Why don't we just change that? In order to be connected in the capitalist society we have to go along with it. We don't want to miss anything and we want to be able to talk. We should be reachable always and everywhere – space and time are compressed.

Social media usage time on an iPhone

This sometimes puts us under pressure, or rather "time pressure". So we prefer to look at everything directly and check again and again if there is anything new. When we are already on the platform, we might as well check channels and so on. In everyday life there is a beginning and an end to every activity. One has the feeling to have done something after a certain time. But in some digital media there is no end (Instagram, Netflix, ... ). Unconsciously you wait for it, but the end will not come.

The consequences of acceleration are pressure to perform and burn-out, as we have to work harder and harder to keep up. By living in a digital world, life in the real world can pass us by. Another problem is communication. Today we have much less patience to wait for an answer and often feel a lack of time.

“This Panda is Dancing” by Max Stossel, Center for Humane Technology

What can we as designers do to influence the perception of time in digital space?

We are only aware of the value of time because we never have time. While we try to reach the end of our Instagram Feed in the morning, we don't think about how long we've been on the app or how much the moment means to us. It's only when we get up an hour later and rush stressed out to college that we wish we had more time. As designers we have the possibility to decelerate the everyday life. We can take people out of the constant stress of everyday life and create a moment of mindfulness when using our products. Through yoga or meditation tips, for example, we can make people come back to reality. We often want our users to spend as much time as possible on our website, app etc. However, we should deal with this responsibly and design the use in such a way that it is healthiest. Even Instagram is trying to take this to heart by removing the likes under pictures. For many users the constant comparison was a negative aspect of the app, which can lead to a lowered self-esteem. Hiding the likes may also take away the ambition and incentive to post more, but for most it is an improvement that makes it healthier to use.

Youtube: Almost all functions of the website aim to keep the user countries on the platform: Auto-play, recommendations and a start page that shows videos tailored to the user. If we take that away, we are left with a website no one would be able to spend a whole day on.

If we want our products to be used for a long time, it is important that the use does not feel long. For this we can, for example, use many "first times" that make time fly by.

If we want to achieve the opposite, i.e. that people spend less time unconsciously in the digital space, we should also move back to the analogue world in our concepts. More often, simply ask whether an app or a program is the most sensible solution to a given problem, or whether an analog medium might not also be suitable. Instead of an app that tries to limit our mobile phone use, we could design a system that reduces the unnecessary use of the mobile phone. In addition, our goal should always be that our users can quickly grasp the content they need and thus spend relatively little unnecessary time on our products. Once we have learned what factors influence the perception of time, we can use them to guide our users in the desired direction. For example, in productivity applications or learning naps, we can use various factors of acceleration to create the feeling of flow. The users should have the feeling that the annoying tasks are done quickly. If, in turn, we want people to spend less time on social media, we can use deceleration techniques to pull them out of the subconscious undertow. The principle of deceleration is already used in fitness/yoga apps. Even during short workouts, the users should have the feeling that they have done enough physical activity or have relaxed and decelerated everyday life.

It is important above all that we as designers, but also as human beings, deal with the meaning of our time. We only have limited time, so we should deal with it responsibly. Only in this way can we influence it. A start would be to simply take a closer look at your own behaviour.

Digitalisation has brought many positive aspects with it. But the pressure to perform, an "always-on" mentality and "wasting time" are some of the negative aspects, and we can get a grip on them by educating people about digital acceleration and conscious design.

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Digital Culture

Critical reflections on current developments in digital technologies and our role as designers to shape and sketch the future. With free choice of the topic, these texts have been written by students at HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd in the course "Digital Culture" under the supervision of Prof. Andreas Pollok.