PJ: In 1998, Swatch, the watch company, tried to reinvent the concept of time itself. They proposed a new time measurement called Internet Time, or alternately, beat time. Swatch Internet time works like this. You throw out hours, minutes, and seconds. Instead, a day is made up of beats - 1,000 of them. Each beat lasts one minute and twenty six point four seconds. Swatch sold watches that displayed beat time, but they also offered a free beat time clock you could download from their website. I talked to Eric Limer, from Gizmodo, who wrote about it.
PJ: Why would the internet need its own time?
ERIC: Well I think the idea is that people on the internet are from all different parts of the world, so using normal time with people way far away from you gets really annoying. So it seems like it could be useful.
Before we get into that though, let’s take a moment to remember what 1998 on the internet meant. In 98, Google’s half a year from being incorporated. Starcraft is a new game. Someone is writing a letter to the New York Times asking why their 56k modem only connects at 53k. The internet is teetering between being a toy for nerds and a pervasive part of everyone’s life. Nicholas Negroponte, head of MIT’s Media Lab, goes on CNN and says that Swatch Internet time is the future.
"This is just the beginning, the beginning of understanding that cyberspace has no limits, no boundaries, no geography, no distance. We’re just at the beginning of understanding what that means.”
PJ: Hi, Carlo, can you hear me?
CARLO: Yes yes.
This is Carlo Giordanetti, Swatch’s Creative Director.
PJ: Do you remember clearly how the idea came up?
Carlo: Absolutely. It was a pretty big deal at the time. We had a dream that you would be chatting with your friends around the world at the same time, and the idea to kill the obstacle of time was basically what was put on the table. So you know you’re in Shanghai, you’re in Marrakesh, New York, Milan, and you have only one way to look at time and not four different ones.
PJ: This was an immensely ambitious plan. If it worked, it would mean that a company previously famous for popularizing the plastic watch would now be known as the company that popularized time’s version of Esperanto. If this sounds crazy to you - if you don’t think a private company could just unilaterally change our conception of time and eliminate time zones, then you’re forgetting where we got time zones. When time zones were introduced, they were called railroad time. Because the railroads invented them. Because the tiny adjustments train conductors had to make while moving from city to city had become cumbersome in the face of a new technology that made the world smaller. Anyway. Swatch painted a big red line on their headquarters -- the meridian of internet time.
PJ: Did you get used to thinking in beat time? noon no 600 beats
CARLO: I tried, but i was already too old for that,Meetings were called at beat time. Or whatever the beginning of conference calls, we sent the information around like meeting is at 255. It was fun because people had to really go figure it out to be on time.
PJ: Do you know who was using it in the beginning?
Carlo: CNN used it on the news. They had it on for a 24 basis as a way to show time.
PJ: Not just CNN. Ericcson built new phones that displayed internet time. ICQ - ICQ! - added internet time to its messenger client. Swatch toured the world explaining their plan. Carlo says the best reception they got was in Japan. Japanese people just got it, and they loved the actual internet time watches, which Carlo says looked like thin aluminum spaceships turned on their sides.
CARLO: There’s a Japanese word - kawai - which means everything cute and fun, something that speaks to you like an unexpected personality. Beat time was kawaii. There was a small animation on the watch, a character on the watch, with his dog, that peed at certain time. That resonated with them.
So why aren’t we all living in a world where time is measured in beats and adorable peeing dogs? Eric Limer says part of the problem is that while beat time promises to free us from all of our time’s annoying adjustments it’s -- as you’ve probably already figured out -- very hard to use.
ERIC: One of the main pitfalls of beat time is that beat time doesn’t have any context in the real world. Like, the reason we make all those adjustments is so like, when you say noon to someone on the other side of the planet, it means roughly the same part of a day. Noon is the middle of the day. Whereas beat time … 500 beats might be lunchtime for you, but if you’re talking to somebody else, where they are it might always be the middle of the night. So it’s pretty useless unless the people you’re talking to live horrible lives.
PJ: Right. Where any reference to the outside world doesn’t matter anymore.
ERIC: Yeah and that’s the problem is it’s internet time but it’s pure internet time. And considering we still live in the real world that doesn’t have that much sense.
As a person who lives in the present, it’s easy to laugh at the ideas of people in the past. It’s cheap, too. Every big idea seems crazy until it works. I asked Carlo why he thought internet time failed, and he surprised me by putting the blame on Swatch.
CARLO: You know, in a company like Swatch we have one big mistake that we do all the time. We fall in love and out of love relatively quickly. So as soon as another idea came to the floor, and we started to think about something new, we started to use it a little less, promote it a little less. And that’s where obviously then the public doesn’t follow you.
PJ: It sounds like from what you’re describing, it wasn’t like people were disappointed or like it was a big failure.
CARLO: Oh no not at all. I mean, even still today people remember it. And they don’t remember it as - we have other Swatch projects where people look at it like, what were you thinking? In this case they totally recognize the cool factor. I think it suggests in a way, that to revolutionize a new way of telling time -- probably we would have had to do some lobbying at some governmental level. Which is so non-Swatch. (laughs)
Maybe one day Swatch will reinvent itself as a lobbying group dedicated to changing our idea of time, but it’s unlikely. For now, Swatch Internet Time’s a mostly quiet ghost. A reminder of what we thought the future would be in 1998.
NEGROPONTE: "This is just the beginning, the beginning of understanding that cyberspace has no limits, no boundaries, no geography, no distance. We’re just at the beginning of understanding what that means.”
We’re still trying to understand what that means. But buried in the back of Swatch’s website, you can still find a world map and a clock that’ll tell you the time in beats. The page looks recently updated, not like some relic from the nineties. You can go there. You can set your watch to it.