December 08, 2003

Time Horizon Slider

While photographing Renaissance masterpieces in Florence, I was struck by the decreasing value of images. The cost of making images has been dropping precipitously over the last 150 years, since photography. In the Renaissance, they had to choose their subject matter very carefully, because a single image took a long time to make and, by virtue of its rarity, often had to serve a broad audience and communicate many messages simultaneously. This is especially true of the major masterworks, which are often dense and broad (in terms of audience) in content, but it's even in casual decorations, which often had at least two purposes: to cover up a surface and to communicate ownership or status. Since photography, I think that the number of images (and this is a very abstract measurement, of course) that are produced per capita has probably been going up at an exponential rate. Today, there's a deluge of images--I can get 2000 digital photographs onto a memory stick the size of a cracker, five years ago this would have consumed a backpack of 35mm film, fifty years ago it would have consumed a truckload of 120 film, one hundred years ago it would have consumed a train car of glass plates, five hundred years ago it would have consumed, well, the Uffizi.

This has had the effect that images have become both much more personal, as they can be made and shared in ever smaller quantities, and much more ephemeral. To create a painting for just a couple of people was an extravagant indulgence and it became a permanent heirloom, to share a digital camera snapshot with just one person--or even to not share it at all, to keep it completely private--is trivial, to throw it away is just as easy.

This all leads to the current problem: the firehose of information. We all know about it, and have for quite a while, but it keeps ramping up, growing. In terms of my image calculation above, I hypothesize that this is because our ability to find important images, to find meaning in our representations of the world, hasn't grown nearly as quickly. It's grown, but there's a gap between the number of images we find that represent our world in an interesting way and the number of images that we can choose from. That gap is the firehose and closing it is what an enormous amount of energy is devoted to:

When discussing this with Fabio he put it very poetically: rather than creating ever newer technologies for remembering, we should think about creating technologies that help us forget. I'm not sure I completely agree with the idea that we should be discarding our information (we never know what will be interesting later--I often find that what's going on in the background of old photographs and painting to be as interesting as what the photographer thought was the most important thing), but I definitely agree that there's a value in technologies that forget for us, that filter for us, that make some things more important.

Which brings me to an idea I had back in May, a UI implementation of a baby idea embodying some of the philosophical discussion above: I want there to be a slider in all my Windows Explorer windows that allows me to hide/highlight files based on date. A time horizon that I could choose, which would "forget" things for me based on when they were made. This is more than just sorting by creation date, it's actually making the stuff disappear. Of course it would reappear if I moved the slider, but it would allow me to sort things based on other meaningful criteria while also also sorting them based on time. One end would be all files, the other end would be files/folders changed today. The rest would follow the Find File conventions. Here's a sketch:

So, Microsoft, build me this. Thanks.

[a side note: I've been using Adobe Photoshop Album to manage my digital photos and I like how it lets you manage images. It's essentially a faceted classification tool and an easy one at that. It even has a time slider that's quite nice, although it's absolute, rather than relative to "today."]

Addendum: It seems that Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems has also been measuring how much information is being produced. This is the more general case of my thought above and the results seem to follow my gut-level curve.

Posted by mikek at December 8, 2003 08:23 AM | TrackBack

This notion is also useful for browser history, see the name link, or

Posted by: Andyed at December 8, 2003 09:41 AM

There's always Gelernter's Lifestream project(s).

Posted by: andrew at December 8, 2003 07:16 PM

Great stuff, Mike.

Re discarding information, I agree with you: I'm reminded of a photo of Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky that was on the cover of some major news magazine (back when that story seemed important to anybody.) The photographer commented that the only reason he still had that picture was because he had shot it on film and kept all his negatives. The photo was taken long before anyone knew about the scandal. It wasn't a very good picture, nor did it seem important at the time when he shot it. Had he been shooting digital, he said, he would have deleted it and never looked back.

Clearly the solution is to be a pack rat and never delete your digital photos... like me :-)

Posted by: Cassidy at December 9, 2003 02:42 PM

I remember LifeStreams! It's been commercialized as Scopeware Vision, but looking at the Flash demo, it looks like a really space-inefficient Find File. They seem to have removed the timeline aspect of it and kept the pile-of-paper aspect, which is unfortunate, since I thought that the timeline was what was interesting about it (piles of paper don't scale well--think of a 2 inch pile of paper versus a 200 inch pile).

Posted by: Mike at December 10, 2003 01:03 PM

I think that Jun Rekimoto's Time Machine Computing research project ( could suit your needs. ;)

Posted by: fabio at December 15, 2003 05:54 AM

Yup, that's pretty much it. Cool! (and it once again proves that having an original idea in this day and age is difficult ;-) However, looking at the work, it looks like Rekimoto's implementation was more paradigm-breaking than what I'm thinking about, which may have been why although it's supposedly included on a laptop series, it never got picked up. I'm thinking that a smaller first step may be more appropriate (which is why I figured a slider would be a good first start).

Posted by: Mike at December 15, 2003 08:07 AM

The real firehose has always been the blooming buzzing confusion of our senses, which we generally can't turn off; with imaging technologies we are simply getting closer and closer to realtime and realmode capture of of the raw input that our senses have been delivering all along and that we have sampled in various ways to fix into (semi)permanence. Older modes of sensory capture are palimpsests of many moments: long-exposure photographs froze our ancestors to sternness; paintings allow our edited memories to enter in. I love the slider idea as long as the old stuff doesn't go away!

Posted by: Pat Galloway at February 4, 2004 11:42 AM
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