Just What IS Real-Time?
September 29, 2015
In or outside media, the fastest time is real time … a term we use all the time. Its clever deceptively simplistic interpretation is so casual now. It doesn't just refer to hurry up, move your tail, or stat. Once a long time ago all time was real time, but today it's not redundant as in retronyms like "snail mail" or "pay phone."
Amazingly, in his book "Faster," theorist James Gleick records, "The Oxford English Dictionary started tracking the phrase as early as 1953." In fact, he's right. In '53 the OED wrote, "With the use of computers, there arises the question of their being used in the solution of problems in real time."
In 1960 The New York Times wrote, "Air Force and Weather Bureau meteorologists attempted to use pictures to make 'real time' forecasts …" and, in the early '70s in the article Computers & Data Processing, a British author wrote, "An example of a real-time process is a cheque account system in a bank where all transactions are reported to the computer before the process is finished."
So the phrase subtly enjoyed an extended soft-launch as entities and people began looking for a term that would suggest "instantaneously" inferring instant gratification in virtually everything; nicely packaged in "real time;" a presidential news conference, an earthquake, a galactic fly-by.
Today your kids will get dressed for school in real time, your CD player will serve up a recent Andrew McMahon song in real time, stocks will rise and fall, your waiter will bring your entrée, and your mortgage payment will process … all in real time. Not just "do it quickly," "quantum leap" or "cutting edge," but definitively in real time.
The fact is we're living a 21st Century obsession, crossing the threshold of "The Web" into a new dimension. But what of human communication: contemplation, cultivating minds or even coaching radio leadership? Where we once heard a newscast or a management briefing, then blank spaceuntil the next installment, we had time to contemplate, think-though something, and only then form an actionable opinion. Old time, new time, real time … gone forever. Now we hear those same installments of how-to or conflict-resolution, only they're crammed together in a daily maelstrom of data and emotion, coming at us like an Acela train.
Cell cameras take us there; uplinks show us miraculous views and untold misery. And in our backyard, the boss' morning's edict about what to do and how to do it can change by noon; an entire plan is only as viable as the real time in which it's being executed. There's no going back, there's no point in protestation. Instead, the one thing we can protect, perfect and project is the case for human behavior; understanding that when relationships break down, everything breaks down -- including "real time," which can just as quickly become no time.
Time shifts, people change, we change. Chronological age is irrelevant. Real time or not, we can all think back to the music of our youth when we thought we knew everything about life and had the world by the tail … still unaware there was a Tiger at the other end.