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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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Visual Management of Time (Daniel L. Golden)

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Daniel L. Golden

Visual Management of Time

1.  The Use of Time

There is a striking contradiction between time as one of the most fundamental constituents of human existence, and as one of our most abstract concepts ever. While – as we can learn from inquiries made by Kristóf Nyíri (2006, 2007, 2016) – the sense of time is deeply embedded in our bodily subsistence from heartbeats to motoric gestures, this kinesthetic-biological background cannot give an exhaustive account of time functioning as a social institution. The importance of the latter was realized by several theoreticians of modern society from the early 20th century. According to Georg Simmel (1903), metropolitan life presupposes the precise coordination of actions via the harmonization of clocks. Max Weber (1922) suggested that modern bureaucracy is developing a so-called technocratic thinking through presenting itself as a machine-like entity yielding to ever better efficiency. Lewis Mumford (1934) envisioned the transformation of organic time into mechanical time in order to put social life under control. In general, modernization will make indispensable reliable time calculating systems which can be accessed through uniform ways for the whole community at any point in time.

Considering the long history of time measuring devices we can see that they all make use of certain natural-physical phenomena. However, the sun moving, water or sand flowing, electrons emitting microwaves, etc. are in themselves insufficient to turn time into something calculable. They need to convey their outcomes in a visible (or sometimes audible) way for human comprehension. Most measurement tools apply a kind of visual translation, i.e. projecting the passing of the abstract time into the factual space; casting a shadow on a display with a calibration, or installing a hand which will point at a certain section of the visually designed surface. In fact, sundials, clockworks, time lines, calendars and time tables all build upon visual components in order to make the abstraction conceivable, communicable, and operable for the human mind. We can even call this the “domestication of natural time,” as we may get the impression that we gain the power even to manipulate it by those artificial means. ← 51 | 52 →

2.  Time Management and the Concepts of Time

The main driving force behind the requirements on timing, tracking, and synchronizing human activities was, of course, industrialization, together with free competition. In that framework consumption of time had to be optimized in the same way as of any other material resource in order to benefit most from production procedures. Frederick W. Taylor (1911/1967) turned that efficiency issue into a scientific problem, making careful research and meticulous experiments with factory workers standing behind the assembly lines. Taylorism became the trademark for the idea that any human activity can be reorganized by identifying the distinct units of it and rationalizing the sequences of their realization.

Since then time economy became one of the basic domains for management studies. As we can learn from a popular book on time management (Johns 2003), the very point to start from is the insight that “time isn’t like the Brazilian rain forest: it is irreplaceable”. Time in itself may be endless, “but for each one of us the supply is undoubtedly limited” (Johns 2003: 5). That said, what we shall aim at is to take the control over the amounts of time standing at our disposal. “Manage your time or it will manage you,” we are told.

It is suggested that there are basically two ways of reacting to increasing duties and tasks. Either we simply elongate our working week: going to work early, staying there late, taking work home, and working at weekends, or we start to manage time much more effectively and productively. The proper use of time is interpreted here as “adding value”. Conducive moves will include everything what brings us closer to a meaningful action: planning, exploring, thinking, making decisions; while wasting time will mean ‘spending it without added value’, i.e. not being engaged in anything reasonable. Efficiency, then, will be formulated as maximizing the proportion of useful events to the time used. The manager’s task should be no longer fighting against unexpected threats to his or her company, but pursuing as many additional values in a given interval as it is possible.

This also means that time management can be best defined as the ability of managing ourselves in order to produce the maximum activity within a certain period of time. So, arguably, it is about nothing else than “self-management,” the demand for endurance and devotion in working consciously for carefully chosen goals or aims. It will consist of monitoring, evaluating and restructuring our customs in time usage to improve inefficiencies. While managing public time served for the coordination among actions of different members of a society, here we are facing the claim for something similar, but on the individual’s level, where distinct activities shall find their optimal order in a personal time frame. This would produce something like a private time, which seems to make an important shift in ← 52 | 53 → perspectives. Going one step further, we can say that the chasing of a competitive advantage in using time may change the concept of it from the “objective” to the “subjective”. It almost seems to have a dual nature: either we can think about it as something built of rigid and unchangeable units, or we may think that there are certain holes in it which can be fulfilled by additional contents.

At this point it seems to be advisable to take a look at the presuppositions about the nature of time behind time management. A first question is whether we shall think about time as linear or cyclical? Shall we say with Heraclitus that “one can never step into the same river,” i.e. the flow of time is unstoppable and it stands above any human intervention, or rather share the idea revived from its ancient roots by Nietzsche about the “eternal recurrence,” telling us that within the infinite realm of time the same patterns will be necessary repeated again and again.

Probably to get time manageable, we have to assign to both of these aspects. Any planning for the future based on records of the past will have sense only if we think that certain situations will somehow return. But we should also believe that events are not determined forever, so that we will be in the position of making some improvements.

Another question is in what sense we shall take time as a constituent of our world? Newton’s absolute time, for instance, is linear, completely homogeneous and linked to mechanical movements, so that it can be split up into measurable units. It is a natural phenomenon entirely inhuman as it obeys natural laws independently of human efforts made for measuring it. This mathematical-physical concept of time can be contested by psychological approaches. Bergson, for instance, contrasted this scientific notion of time with a metaphysical one called real duration. The latter cannot be split up mechanically into smaller parts as the former, and it can be experienced only through the meaningful actions of the individual. It will be more about quality than quantity, as “[…] the positive time manager will say: It isn’t the hours you put in, it’s what you put into the hours which determines whether you’re effective or not” (Johns 2003: 16).

We can make our understanding even more complex if we consider the relativistic challenge presented by Einstein, where activities with different intensity would make differences in the flow of time, thus resulting in incommensurable durations, relative to the personal frame of reference of the observer. On the other hand, from the perspective of Heidegger’s existential analysis, authenticity of life depends on the proper use of our time. Against the ordinary concept of linear and infinite time going back to Aristotle, he insists, time is definitely finite, and we shall live our lives having that in mind, grasping all opportunities for giving significance to it. While the lifespan of the human being cannot be stretched over ← 53 | 54 → its biological or medical limits, at the same time it can be seemingly infinitely widened inwards by acquiring more and more sense for it.

3.  Visualizing Tools and Understanding Time

Management issues linked to the better use of our temporal resources are generally about the improper occurrence of certain events – too many distractions in the forms of incoming phone calls or face-to-face interruptions, too little delegation of time consuming tasks to subordinates, etc. The results of these are massive overloads of work in a given period. To avoid that, the good manager will make plans as to how to use his or her time more effectively. Data can be examined from different angles: value-added analysis opposes maintenance and crisis prevention to performance improvement and changing management; task-scale analysis investigates whose expectations are coming to fruition, so that there are boss-imposed, system-imposed, subordinate-imposed, customer-imposed, and self-imposed uses of time; finally time-scale analysis makes distinctions among specific purposes such as administration time, communication time, operations time, supervision time, wasted time, and executive time. Based on those successful time management schemes, they must include a realistic estimating of the time necessary for a certain activity, while progress reports give feedback on how much the initial idea measured up to the time units actually utilized. The worst thing to be experienced in this respect is time-pressure, when the planned activity won’t fit into the timeframe opened for it. In other words, there is a clash between our personal commitment to accomplishing a task and the impersonal flow of time.

All these, once again, are presented through various visual-spatial depictions. For example, a deadline signed in a calendar gives the impression of a finite spatial area which should be filled densely with purposeful actions. By visualizing, we construct a common, external understanding on the top of our personal, internal experiences of time. We shall note here that the whole procedure seems to be highly conventional, since an abstract concept is represented by symbolic visuals, which will gain their concrete meaning only from usage, i.e. the manipulation of time made possible precisely by them. The visualization of time relations is actually built up in three steps. The first one is spatial metaphorization, the second is visualization of the spatial metaphor, which means the transformation of the abstract temporal relations into factual spatial relations. The third step already consists of the actions realized following the morals drawn from previous records: filling up empty spaces, reducing density, changing sequential order, etc.

One of the most common tools is the daily time schedule in a form of a clock, where each hour is dedicated to a distinct activity (W1). Time tables are also ← 54 | 55 → widespread for the same reasons: they show life put into logical order, under conscious control. Even the timeline can be regarded as a sequence of events with time stamps presenting how much one succeeded in managing his or her life time (W2). An unusual tool is the chronodex, or hyperdex, or spiraldex (W3), which gives the possibility of managing multitask-work by coloring time periods used for distinct activities.

Besides these static representations, recent ICT developments put some dynamic ones into everyday use as well. By utilizing the possibilities of moving picture these are able to give the feeling of time passing as well. Think of the sidebar showing our actual position within the consumption of a certain media piece, or the download status bar transmitting the information about the state of perfection of the process going on. Both are making an effect on our sense of time by linking spatial proportions to temporal distributions in a dynamic way.

Based on these insights a theoretical framework for the visual interpretation of time can be designed where the key terms will be proportion, resolution, and segmentation.

We may find it quite embarrassing to hear that the secret of time management would be simply to “use all seconds in the day wisely”. It is because we feel that the deliberate allocation of meaningful actions at this scaling is beyond the abilities of human beings. Instead, we will find different units of time and certain amounts of them proper for our diverse activities. We will want to count the time necessary for learning for the next school day in hours, preparing for an important exam in months, and the period of our lives dedicated to education in years. These measuring units of time are partly universal and objective, but in a sense also relative to the action in question. Resolution then would mean here, that one can actually zoom in and out over the images of time, so that you will receive different slices of its flow with different depths or perspectives. Management goals will be formulated in terms of proportions – which is a visually based concept coming from geometry as e.g. “reduce the time spent on telephone calls by half”. Increasing efficiency will be executed through the redistribution of a timespan between useful and “unuseful” activities. While resolution defines the units, segmentation will give the scope or range of them to be seen together creating a temporal narrative, bringing into relief a certain amount of units that seem to be somehow linked together to form a meaningful section. Those will be the histories of a person, a family, or a nation.

A unique example for that understanding of time would be the data visualization made by Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass (W4) from all 4535 issues of Time magazine published between 1923 and summer 2009. The unit in this ← 55 | 56 → representation without any surprise will be the week, while different periods of 20th century history can be identified by temporal patterns of different styles, printing techniques and other visuals of the front cover images.

4.  Conclusions

Dare we say then that, at least in the context of human comprehension, time has a definitely visual nature?

Philosophical considerations behind time management seem to give the possibility of actually reconciling and somehow making use of all contradictory ideas concerning the features and functionalities of time. Visual representations seem not only linking together conceptually the physical and psychical understandings of it, but also merging them, giving the possibility to transform the abstract notion into something like a material resource consisting of practically controllable working units which can be reorganized at one’s will.

The visual-spatial external representations of our internal time experiences serve for mitigating, or civilizing the natural phenomenon. Throughout the centuries, dozens and hundreds of smart tools has been developed and constructed in order to give the possibility to seemingly manipulate time. In the place of the hardly conceivable flow of time, we put graphical symbolization of punctual and durational aspects, which can be easily perceived by the eye and the mind.

In that way we end up with a notion of time linked to the presence of meaningful actions, which can give us the hope for utilizing the theoretic phenomenon pragmatically in the scope of our everyday life.


Johns, Ted (2003): Perfect Time Management: All You Need to Get It Right First Time. London: Random House Business Books.

Nyíri, Kristóf (2006): Time and Communication. In: Stadler, Friedrich K. – Stöltzner, Michael (eds.): Time and History / Zeit und Geschichte. Frankfurt/M.: Ontos Verlag. 301–316.

Nyíri, Kristóf (2007): Time and the Mobile Order. In: Nyíri, Kristóf (ed.): Mobile Studies: Paradigms and Perspectives. Vienna: Passagen Verlag. 101–111.

Nyíri, Kristóf (2016): Emerging Media and the Philosophy of Time. In: Floyd, Juliet – Katz, James E. (eds.): Philosophy of Emerging Media: Understanding, Appreciation, Application. Oxford UP. 159–170.

Mumford, Lewis (1934): Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. ← 56 | 57 →

Simmel, Georg (1903/1997): The Metropolis and Mental Life. In: Frisby, David –Featherstone, Mike (ed.): Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings. London: Sage Publications. 174–185.

Taylor, Frederick W. (1911/1967): The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Norton.

Weber, Max (1922/1978): Economy and Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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