The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Bug time

I was on a panel at the Wordstock festival in Portland recently, and one of the other panelists, a poet named Mike Young, provided a précis of an idea called “bug time.” You should see the pad of hotel stationary I was using to take notes that day: BUG TIME!!!, underlined multiply, letters gouged into the paper. Look up. Joy L. (?) McSweeney. Notre Dame poet. I was excited.

I am hungry for ideas—specifically, ways of thinking about media, about producing and consuming it—that are truly new, and truly suited to our times. We have all these crazy tools now, and more all the time, and these crazy ways of wiring things together, but we still mostly want to be “authors.” (You can just overlay quotation marks around any/all words in this post. It’s “that” “kind” of “post.”) I mean, of course we do! It’s fun. I love being an author. But at the same time, I have a nagging sense that traditional authorship (even a bloggy sort of traditional authorship) isn’t quite “forward-leaning” in the way that I value. (If you’re interested, I tried to describe that sensibility recently.)

You read about the history of books and you learn: it’s all invented. Not just the formats, but the roles and relationships—cultural, economic, and otherwise. Back in 1450, there was no such thing as a person who paid their rent by writing. It didn’t even make sense to call anyone a “writer,” at least not in the sense that we mean it today. Scribe, maybe; writer, no. Erasmus was (probably) the first, right around 1500, and today we’ve got writers all over the place. So, by extension, there must be some role—or more broadly, some way of being, of working—that will seem obvious and essential and maybe even romantic in the year 2600 that we have not yet imagined today.

What might it look like? What might it feel like? Where can we find some clues?

I think Joyelle McSweeney’s articulation of bug time is a clue. I won’t attempt a summary here, because her post is fairly short, and part of the fun is her language—a blend of academic scaffolding and LiveJournal ranting. It’s at bullet point #8 that it begins to coalesce:

I reject the so-called economy of corporate time, capitalist time, so called ‘linear’ time, triumphalist time, which is a golden lie anyway, and instead I recognize this tide of shit and waste, I recognize that that is where I live, if I live, on bug time, on bug time; in Indiana, in the necropastoral; I have no interest in myths of posterity, in a secured future, in the supposed future of literature or humans or anything else; the way I’m writing now is disposable; in disposible media and unsturdy genres; but it’s the most important thing in my millisecond life…

On one level, I wince and frown and shake my head: I do believe in the supposed future of literature and humans and everything. And I have never in my life perceived anything as a “tide of shit and waste.” On another level, there’s something bright lurking in this grim graf, and something that speaks to me. I am, after all, the guy who deletes his old tweets. I’m living one tiny part of my life in bug time, kinda sorta? And it feels good. It feels right. It feels… new.

That’s all I’ve got. I think McSweeney is on to something. Her notion that the internet might proceed in bug time, rather than railroad time or author time, is more exciting than anything I’ve encountered in a long while. Not because I endorse her necropastoral (!) vision, but because she’s at least trying something. She’s groping in the dark for an idea that’s truly new. I’m hungry for more.


I should add that Joyelle McSweeney’s actual poems are super interesting as well. Here’s one titled “ARS POETICA, or, I wanted to unlock my phone.”

I have not read past the first line. This is b/c I feel the need to point out that I keep tripping on the phrase “Wordstock festival” and wanting it to be “Wordstork festival” and want there to be a celebration of the annual arrival of the Storks as they fly in and drop bundles of neologisms into the waiting arms of poets gathered below .

Alright, now I’ll read your post.

“I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here.” I see what you did there, Sloan. Touché.

“I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work!”

To see an accelerated version of the problem confronting writers, look at the music industry. It’s beginning to look like artists who got paid primarily to record music and sell it to other people were a momentary aberration, not a permanent model. Human beings have been making music for millennia, and for much of human history since the invention of farming and the cognitive surplus freed up by not needing to hunt for food all the time, some of them have been traveling around and supporting themselves by playing music, and now live touring at all levels, from Joe Schmo Cover Band to James Blake to Jay-Z, is the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal outlook for the future of paid music-making.

Similarly, the “value” of writing measured in dollars and cents continues to drop, but what does that really mean? That people will soon stop telling stories? Stop recording stories? Or just that the way that they record stories and the way they make money won’t always line up the way they have for the past couple centuries. Maybe there’s something to the live event model. Look at the success of podcasts, of live events like Pop Up Magazine, the Moth, Mortified, etc. Or maybe we’re all careening towards a post-scarcity era where everyone can be a writer, and nobody gets paid in more than Likes/retweets/blogcoins/whuffie…

A few years ago I went to a great lecture on the idea of the “Gutenberg Parenthesis”: “that recent developments associated with the digital media and the internet are a reversion to ‘medieval’ conditions prevailing prior to the rise and dominance of literacy, print and the book”.

These are some of my notes on its wonderfully-formatted handout – generally saying that the era of printed books was weird, with these “solid lumps of textual material” and other artifacts unlike previous oral traditions or current internet technologies.

Here’s a written version of the lecture (“Our current transitional experience toward a post-print media world dominated by digital technology and the internet can be usefully juxtaposed with that of the period–Shakespeare’s–when England was making the transition into the parenthesis from a world of scribal transmission and oral performance”). And another discussion of it — comparing the current destabilized role of the press with the era when it hadn’t yet stabilized.

Britta, great share. I’ve heard that thought shared for awhile now (that digital has ushered in a return to orality), but I’d never seen that model before.

What I’ve been trying to dissect is that the printed word is credited with ushering in modern thought and a focus on science. Speaking in the long term, is a return to transient communication something to be feared and fought against?

I’m trying to balance my dislike of every word and photo being a part of my permanent record. While preserving the idea of the slow hunch…carrying around ideas that are waiting for the right time.

Second that, wonderful share, Britta.

“What I’ve been trying to dissect is that the printed word is credited with ushering in modern thought and a focus on science. Speaking in the long term, is a return to transient communication something to be feared and fought against?”

Gary, I think this is key—and but of course “fighting against something” out of uninformed fear is usually a bad strategy, and informing ourselves to validate or null the hunch that is seeding our fear would be the first step. I have a small but amateurish obsession with stories of lost knowledge. The ancient Hellenes losing writing. The loss of concrete. The loss of Vitamin C. Lost languages taking unique concepts and cognitive tricks with them to the grave. A small piece of undocumented (to me) folk history that was passed on to me as part of my heritage as a descendant of colonized people is that the British wanted to eliminate the competition (to their machines) of certain Bengali weavers who were able to handweave saris so fine they were opaque and yet could fit into a child’s fist, and so they cut of their thumbs so the craft could not be passed on. Even if its apocryphal, I think there’s a lesson in the shape of the horror story: they did not just rob those weavers of their thumbs and their livelihoods, they robbed their children of their birthright to try and learn from their parents’ knowledge and cleverness and skill. To me the hunch of the fear is–what opportunities are we robbing from our unknown descendants? But if we examine the reality of lost opportunities past we might come up with some rules of thumb more reasonable that “Printout and archive everything!”

We all know how copyright and commodifying media does not always contribute to longevity, but setting it down in a physically stable object does. My reaction of horror to Robin’s of deleting tweets when he first told me about it was not because of the loss of potential material to be repackaged in some new, commercially lucrative form in the future, but of the loss of an archive for his loved ones present and future, and the loss of reference for the (many of us) who have thought threads stimulated by his public musings. At the same time we have to let go sometime, and extending the freedom of ephemera from in-person chit-chat to digital chitchat with liberal use of the delete key seems to get at the heart of the in-the-present invoked by bug time.

Saheli, you just sent me down a fun path reading about vitamin c being found and lost throughout history.

Part of my thinking is that I’m currently absorbed in Weinberger’s “Too Big to Know”. Its got me thinking about how the collection of an enormous number of facts or data points can sometimes lead to a difficult time abstracting an idea, or building up fresh theories. Essentially creating our own needle in a haystack by continuing to pile on more hay, rather than periodically stepping back and starting fresh.

Practically, I’m too much of a hoarder to actually follow that advice (or to even think of deleting my tweets). But it does feel like my digital self is too busy creating hay and moving it from place to place…but never setting the hay on fire and grabbing the needle from the ashes.

This thread reminds me of three articles, which I’ll clip from below, but please be encouraged to read them in full.

Alan Jacobs on “the desire of the Sybil”:

It’s generally understood that books are read differently in different generations: cultural changes bring themes and images to the forefront that might have been invisible, or wholly subdued, to a previous generation of readers. It took the rise of Romanticism and its associated revolutions to cast Milton’s Satan in a heroic light; existentialism made King Lear seem to be, not some strange figure from an obscure past, but our contemporary.

This can happen to lesser works as well. Recently I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings and began to wonder how it might be read fifty years from now, assuming that our scientists are able to extend the human lifespan significantly. Might it not be that Bilbo and Gollum will become more significant figures in the minds of future readers? And might not the Ring itself take on a different aura of meanings?

Robinson Meyer on “How So Many People Got Seamus Heaney’s Last Words Wrong”:

We die and the language gets away from us, in little ways, like a dropped vowel sound, a change in prepositions, a mistaken transcription. Errors in transfer make a literature.

Charlie Loyd talks about the oral tradition in his marvelous “Fractals and Stories”:

People complain about the domestication of modern life – the mediation, the normality, the lack of invention. We are missing some wildness, some unmediated sensitivity and uninsulated toughness, that we need. We don’t fit our patterns to our fabric. This gets blamed on suburbs. I hope so. If it’s cars and the urban planning they enable, we can build trains and fix it. But in darker moments I think the problem might be the idea that every story has a definitive expression. This comes from recording technology – movies, albums, and especially writing. I hope literacy is not the problem, because I wouldn’t know how to take sides. I would have to think about everything case by case.

Gary, you in turn have sent me down quite the warren by invoking David Weinberger’s tome, which I knew nothing of before, and which seems quite pitched to me.

but never setting the hay on fire and grabbing the needle from the ashes. Oh! is that how we’re supposed to find the needle? I was always envisioned using magnets! The very thought of burning the hay, rather than keeping it to nestle in, makes me anxious.

Roberto I hope literacy is not the problem, because I wouldn’t know how to take sides. I come across critiques of literacy, or an overreliance on literacy rather, surprisingly a lot actually, in the theological context of my lit-obsessed religion. Like much counsel floating around in our tradition, it seems designed to counterbalance some other piece of counsel in our tradition. So I suppose “the problem” effectively reduces to stating the problem with only one part and two sides, rather than two parts and three sides, the side in the middle being the correct solution.

This is an amazing comment thread. Too many rabbitholes, too many tabs already open in my browser!

Gary above mentions “how the collection of an enormous number of facts or data points can sometimes lead to a difficult time abstracting an idea”, and I can’t help but connect this feeling with how it feels to be reading this comment thread right now, this 1 of 13 tabs now open in my browser that I want to read before I go to sleep, and all of the new tabs that will be recommended by those 13 tabs if I ever get to them. And with the volume of Snarkmarket posts going up, and with my new volunteer job at a bookstore filled with books I’ve never heard of…

Basically, as my media consumption has been increasing lately I’ve found that so do the strange, supposedly “coincidental” connections that seem to emerge between them. So I can’t necessarily abstract one single concrete idea, but I do have many pairs of threads of many ideas at once. Little glimpses that show me things are more connected than they first seem, but…

Eventually it gets to be too much. Living in the bug-time is overwhelming–I’m guessing because it has to do with swarming as much as transience.

(Also, I’m sorry if this comment makes not much sense. I probably need to burn the haystack as well, i.e. close my browser and go to sleep.)

Saheli, I’m reading Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” while I wait for a copy of João Guimarães Rosa’s “The Third Bank of the River” (specifically for the title story) to arrive from the library. They’re both related to this thread. You’ll like both, I think, and you also might find this bit about JGR interesting too: “As a young doctor in the remote Brazilian plane, Guimarães Rosa would ask his destitute patients to compensate him by telling him stories.”

Yes, her evocation of bug time is quite brilliant in a deliberately perverse way.

Rejecting the scale by which time is measured is of course as ancient as (sorry), time itself. What else does the concept of “present moment” mean in meditation? Einstein said, “Time and space are not conditions in which we live, but modes by which we think.” Hawking said … Well, some about time. I didn’t really get it.

But I do feel (like you) a frisson in her celebration of bug time as rejection of our traditional concept. It does feel like we are living at accelerated pace, where iteration trumps genius, where emergence is more fecund than imagination. By painting her insight in shit and then celebrating it, she slaps us with the idea, compels attention.

Oh, one more observation: my, how that woman loves the word chitinous.

“Historical time—imperial time—corporate time—each of these…claims to be always moving forward towards a more profitable abundant future.”

Similarly for dinosaur time:

“That’s a cheap motivational ploy–you don’t see through that? I’m just having problems with numbers, dates…Because if this is the year sixty million and three, why is next year sixty million and two? Why are we counting backwards–what are we waiting for?” (

First Dinosaurs reference on Snarkmarket… ever? That line is amazing.

If this page can act as a sort of repository for other times, then this brainpickings article on “mind time” is fascinating:

“because we know that memories fade over time, we use the clarity of a memory as a guide to its recency. So if a memory seems unclear we assume it happened longer ago.”

Sounds like the world of SnapChat. Where folks are rebelling against the idea that expressions need to be permanent. That something done in the moment needs to be seen as being correct and righteous based on a future standard.

Public writing spaces like Twitter feel like getting a tattoo in your early 20’s. At the moment is a medium that allows you to tell the world, indiscriminately, who you are and what you believe in. But as you age, the tattoo rarely changes in a way that reflects how you’ve grown and changed.

Personally, I went through this a year or so ago, when I decided to yank my old digital journalism musings. One of the more public ones was a rant written in 2000 decrying the waste of money from folks chasing after digital video. The economics weren’t there at the time, and even now web-only video is an odd business model. However, I no longer interested in having my year 2000 self argue with a year 2013 person who uses YouTube daily.

Austin says…

I like how it also evokes debugging. We’ve got a less strict creator/consumer divide on the web and I think that’s forced people to contend with the debugging part of producing. Whether it’s code or prose, once you start making it, you have to let go of the idea that there’s a linear path from inception to deploy and then being done. We’re doing more debugging in the open and therefore openly, collectively acknowledging that things take time and effort and retrying and collaboration and arguing and hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing and going to bed confused and console-logging and shower-epiphanies. Then, all of a sudden, you’ve got that killer tweetable thesis statement or line of code or whatever and you move on to the next one.

I don’t know if that’s how she meant it, but the idea of bug time is a scientific thing: insects and other small animals actually experience time differently, at almost like the rest of the world (i.e. us) is going in slow motion. Here’s an article: It’s why those damn flies seem to be able to sense you about to swap them before you think you’ve even moved.

All’s to say, this could be not just a new way of perceiving creativity, but of time itself.

“I am hungry for ideas–specifically, ways of thinking about media, about producing and consuming it–that are truly new, and truly suited to our times.”

I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. Too much of our media creation and consumption is still rooted in pre-digital habits.

I recently published a visual essay pondering the same question, but with online video in mind.

Adam, this is fantastic. Reading now.

@Robin – awesome, I’d love to know what you think!

Matt says…

I’m getting a 404 Not Found on those links – looks like an Apache rewrite problem, because the homepage still loads.

Bug time means mayfly lives – and maybe also the stain left behind after the fly’s swatted, little quotes and commentary about a vanished original. China Mieville wrote a nice little screed against J.R.R. Tolkien maybe 10 years ago at – and you’ll find a number of references and footnotes to it various places, but so far I haven’t been able to track down the original anywhere.

That 404 is so weird — here’s a workaround.

Paul Ford wrote about this great anecdote from The Soul of a New Machine:

There’s a great book called The Soul of a New Machine, about what it takes to build a computer. It came out in 1981. And one of the engineers was talking about nanoseconds. That’s one billionth of a second. So instead of 1,440 minutes in a day you have 86 trillion, 400 billion nanoseconds in a day. Here’s one of the engineers talking:

I feel very comfortable talking in nanoseconds. I sit at one of these analyzers and nanoseconds are wide. I mean, you can see them go by. “Jesus,” I say, “that signal takes twelve nanoseconds to get from there to there.” Those are real big things to me when I’m building a computer. Yet when I think about it, how much longer it takes to snap your fingers, I’ve lost track of what a nanosecond really means.” He paused. “Time in a computer is an interesting concept.”

One of the engineers in the book burned out and quit and he left a note that read: “I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.”

John says…

This thread reminds me of Voltaire’s Micromégas—a sort of inversion of bug time.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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