It's just a matter of time
An Investigation into the Effects of Non-Places on Perception of Time
Do places alter our perception of time?
Transport is an integral aspect of everyday life, but is public transport designed to be fair? Throughout this essay I will examine how a biased transport system could have a causal affect on an individuals perception of time. I will also demonstrate the ways in which the current pandemic has reframed my research, pushing me to consider if the biases existing in the transport system are also present within the home.
Is The Transport System Biased?
Transport systems vary from city to city but in most cases transport links begin outside the city center and then work inwards to the busiest hubs. This means that transport links into the city center are efficient whereas travelling around the outskirts is often awkward and time consuming. In London this can be seen clearly. Let us look at an example of what this means in terms of time spent on public transport.
New Cross Gate station (NXG) is situated in South East London. London Bridge Station is just south of the Thames River that separates North and South London. London Bridge acts as a central hub for people travelling to work both from within and outside the city. The distance between NXG and London Bridge Station is roughly 4.4 miles and the journey by train takes just 7 minutes. Peckham Rye is a station in South East London. If one were to imagine concentric circles placed on a map of London, NXG and Peckham Rye would lie on the same circle. Despite being geographically closer at a distance of approximately 2 miles, this journey by public transport would take approx 18 minutes. Therefore, a return to London bridge from NXG would take 14 mins compared to the 36 minute round trip to Peckham. This is due to the radial transport system. To explore one more comparison let's look at the journey to Canary Wharf Station from NXG. The distance between the two stations is approx 5 miles and a round trip would take roughly 46 minutes. Meanwhile, Stockwell is a station that would lie on the same concentric circle as Peckham Rye and NXG. The distance between NXG and Stockwell is 4.2 miles and a round trip would take nearly 1hr 30 minutes.
Fig 1: Map of London
Who Do These Biases Effect?
"On the whole, engineers focus mostly on ‘mobility related to employment’. Fixed labour times create peak travel hours, and planners need to know the maximum capacity that infrastructure can support. ‘So there’s a technical reason for planning for peak hours,’ Sánchez de Madariaga acknowledges. But needing to plan for peak hours doesn’t explain why [female] /[carers] travel (which doesn’t tend to fit into peak hours, and therefore ‘doesn’t affect the maximum capacity of systems’) gets ignored."
Perez, Caroline Criado. Invisible Women (p. 40).
Having these comparisons in mind it is important to look at who these biases affect. Who are those travelling to Canary Wharf? Canary Wharf is the second central business district of London and is one of the main financial centers of the UK. Therefore creating quick and efficient links to this area is beneficial for commuters who work at any of the numerous banks, service firms or media agencies situated there. Who may be required to travel around their local area? Who may need to take, for example, a trip to Peckham from New Cross Gate? In her book ‘Invisible Women - Exposing the Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, Caroline Criado Perez discusses how those with care responsibilities (carers) often need to travel around the local area. Care responsibilities in this context refer to child care duties, shopping and visiting/caring for elderly relatives. Additionally, it has been found that journeys undertaken by carers often include multiple stops - this is know as trip-chaining. Due to the desitnations of carers, buses are often the only way of transport. Furthermore, due to the design of the transport system, direct routes are not always available and so multiple busses may have to be taken. So who does the transport system suit better, the people travelling to business hubs or those with care responsibilities travelling around the edges of the city? The answer here is clear.
Why Do These Biases Exist?
When looking at city planning documents, it seems the fundamental engineering goal of transport is to create a system that is effective ‘mobility for employment’ (Criado, 2019). Therefore, the key demographic for the transport system are those that are working. The system caters specifically to those who are contributing to the economy. Looking at our carers and commuters again, this hypothesis seems correct. One could thereby derive capitalist ideologies as being one of the fundamental factors in these biases. At the beginning of his 2009 book ‘Capitalist Realism’, Mark Fisher opens with a quote “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism". This quote has been attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek (Setter and Zsolnai, 2019). If Mark Fisher is correct then we should acknowledge that while this transport system may improve, these biases will most likely not be totally eradicated. So what does this mean for our carers or those people that the transport system does not suit? Now that we know that some people are forced to spend more time in this space than others, we have to look at what sort of effect this might have. Firstly, what are these spaces?
“The place offers people a space that empowers their identity, where they can meet other people with whom they share social references. The non-places, on the contrary, are not meeting spaces and do not build common references to a group. Finally, a non-place is a place we do not live in, in which the individual remains anonymous and lonely.” Augé (1995)
French Anthropologist, Marc Augé, coined the term non-places (Augé, 1995). Non-places as defined by Augé refer to places of transience, like subways, bus stops or busses. It was argued that in the time of supermodernity, people in these spaces become anonymous. They are places between the here and now. Generally the tone of the discussion puts non-places in a negative light. Since its publication, the theory of non-places has gained wide recognition across journals and has also leaked into popular culture. For example an indie game called ‘ISLANDS: Non-Places’ (Burton, 2016) was released and was highly received. This game allows the user to explore deserted atmospheric non-places. Ironically, this game was an IOS release which one could presume meant some people would have played the game in the same spaces the game depicts. Although Augé’s non-place has been widely praised it has also come under some scrutiny (Korstanje, 2015). While this is not the place to explore the specifics in detail one of the main points of these arguments highlight that some people do in fact live in these spaces. The Chain Annual Report stated that in 2016-17, in London alone the homeless population reached 8108. A proportion of these people would have taken shelter in stations and bus stops. These are places that Auge would consider non places and therefore there is a question of what do these people then become? Are they constantly anonymous and forever between places?
What Is the Effect of Non-Places on Perception of Time?
Whilst I understand there are issues with Augé’s definition of non-places, I think it is helpful to have a term for these spaces. I am specifically interested in places such as trains and busses that have been built in a way that means some people spend longer in them by design that others. For example, the commuters versus the carers (those that trip chain). If we know that some people are made to spend longer in these non-places than others I think it is important to investigate what effect this has on the person in question. What is the effect of spending a long time on the bus or waiting at a bus stop?
From a psychological perspective, a lot of research has been conducted into the disparity between actual travel times and perceived travel times (Meng, Rau and Mahardhika, 2018). It has been found that there are many factors that may contribute to an overestimation of travel times (Hess et al. 2004). One key aspect of this is that the act of waiting causes an overestimation in the amount of time that has passed. Additionally, it has been found that uncertainty can create a further overestimation of perceived time (Yarmey, 2000). If waiting causes an overestimation of travel times then this will be multiplied if you are taking a journey in which trip-chaining is necessary - such as journeys done by carers. Furthermore, carers are most likely to use buses as their primary form of transport which in many cities run less regularly and less predictably then other forms of transport. Uncertainty and more points of waiting will together create a warped perception of time for those involved.
Moving into more theoretical territory, Fisher has discussed the effect of current culture on time, inspired by thinkers such as Baudrillard, Deleuze and Derrida. Fisher believes that capitalism has affected our perception of time, as well as its progression and suggests that you can have periods of non-time as well as periods of non-place. He proposes that this has occured at a global level, with time becoming non-linear, stuttering and leading to 'a slow cancellation of the future' (Fisher, 2010).
With this in mind I want to focus in on one particular infrastructure rather than looking at society as a whole. In his book, Capitalist Realism, Fisher suggests that experience of time itself is affected by capitalism (Fisher, 2010). I am suggesting here that transport is a capitalistic infrastructure. This statement is backed up by looking at the goals of the transport system - 'mobility for employment'. I therefore believe, that time spent in these non-places has a similar effect to that described by Fisher - it causes our perception of time to become warped. We are not in control in these moments, we must move as a passenger of those with more control than us, stopping along the journey to pick up others with the same temporal affliction. Like Fisher, I believe this creates a sort of temporal dissonance in those afflicted. I do not believe, however, that all time spent in these places is bad, in fact, some positive things can certainly occur in these moments. Instead, I am suggesting that due to the amount of time one must spend in these places, as well as the lack of control felt in such situations, our perception of time is distorted.
So time isn't really constant or linear anymore. It is stuttering and this stuttering is influenced by the places that we visit. These places and the time spent in these places is not always equal. It is biased and these biases mean that some people are pushed further into this temporal irregularity than others.
At this point in my research, strict measures were put into place across the UK as a result of COVID-19
People were forced inside their homes. For a while this disrupted my research and I could barely think, least of all about work. During this period I had to consider if my previous research was still relevant. It was a fairly demoralising place to be. Eventually I got back to it. I began to think about how people had been affected by the forced isolation. Specifically, what had happened to the groups I had been considering before - the carers and the commuters.
I thought that some of those commuters (e.g. hospitality and customer facing sales employees) will have been some of the millions laid off or put on furlough. However, the majority of the people who had been working in the banks, service firms or media agencies in Canary Wharf would most likely be working from home. These companies would presumably have the infrastructure for its employees to work remotely and so while these people would still be affected by recent events in numerous ways their working routines would remain largely unaffected. Their time would still be regulated: morning zoom meetings, work deadlines and company wide Thursday night quizzes. But what about the carers? Care responsibilities will have changed. Carers would no longer do the school run as schools were told to close on March 18th. This would also cut off socialisation done at the school gates. Carers will have also been advised to no longer see elderly relatives unless absolutely necessary and if they had had part time jobs to work around care responsibility these may have been lost. Therefore these routines that had been established will have been largely destroyed at least for the foreseeable future.
I believe that as a consequnce of recent events, the home has now become a non-place. A place in which time passes in irregular and stuttered ways while we wait to be released. Speaking to friends it is clear that this is not a sensation felt only by me, I see similar notions pasted across social media. importantly, It seems that once again that the amount of temporal deformation is biased.
I believe that those who had previously benefited from the transport system and had subsequently spent a small amount of time in these non-places will be less affected - in terms of their relationship with time. Conversely, those who the transport system was previously biased against will likely be suffering a greater temporal dissonance.
Non-places have featured heavily in my previous work. An example of this can be seen in ‘How The City Feels’ - a 2D interactive animation exploring sensitivity, isolation and social interactions within a big city. Scenes from this game occured within non-places such as bus stops, buses and train stations. Whilst these spaces featured heavily in my game, they were not the main focus. In this work I was interested more in how people interact in these moments.
Fig 2&3. Stills from 'How the City Feels'
During this project, my work has developed into looking at the non-places themselves. From this I do not mean the architecture - the columns and bricks that make up the space - rather, I wanted to look at the spaces in a more granular way. I did this by breaking them apart allowing me to investigate what makes up these spaces and what makes up the spaces in between those spaces. This exploration may allow me to understand more how they deform time, how with time they also become morphed. My exploration took many forms, using Processing I made a program that could turn images, videos and live camera feed into pixels which I could then morph and deform. I tried many different inputs. I used video footage of bus journeys to explore that particular non-place. I also used images of my home - the new non-place. Following this I speculated about what other peoples non-places may look like.
A section of a bus journey manipulated using Processing
In order to make these speculative pieces, I made use of StyleGAN2 in Runway, an open source Machine Learning algorithm and took the results into Processing. StyleGAN2 is an example of a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) that when trained on a specific data set can generate endless new images in response. When considering what to use as my input data I thought of what non-places I had investigated. One was public transport, specifically busses as it was the preferred form of transport for carers. The other place I explored was the home - the new non-place. As a result of lockdown I was unable to go out and take pictures of buses myself and so I found an alternative solution. Instead, I thought of what would have been seen from the windows of these buses - roads and buildings. Trying to collect a training set for the home version of this training set was more difficult. I thought of web-scraping - a tool for scraping websites using a python script to locate particular html keys and downloading the images found there. However, on the websites that I visited to try scrapping I found it either too difficult to implement this process or, when successful, found images that were too low resolution. Ultimately, I decided to ask my friends and families to share with me pictures of their homes. This became my data set. Upon reflection I am very happy with this method as it meant that the endless new images generated after training StyleGAN2 reflect real people at the specific time at which quarantine was in place.
Fig 4-8: Works created through a process of StyleGAN2 and Processing
My recent work has allowed me to think more about how perception of time in these places is distorted and nonlinear, how it stutters and stops and then continues. Importantly, this perception of time is not predictable - in fact it is completely inconsistent. The space itself is deformed in these moments to reflect the temporal malaise of its occupants. Parts of the space bellow out while others try, stubbornly, to remain in place creating incoherent collections of previously congruous points.
From this training I could also see the way that the algorithm moved between the latent space of these speculative non-places - morphing in and out of time. Between this process and my manipulation of these spaces some surprising results occurred. Results that became inspirations for short asides in my imagination, such as a tale of an old and disheveled house that stands atop a twisted hill. Who lives there and what can they see from the pinnacle? Is that a womans face or the mouth of a cave where the sea laps back and forth at the opening? Who is that standing out in the rain?
Fig 9-11: Created through a process of StyleGAN2 and Processing
These short meandering paths of the imagination may strengthen the criticisms against Augé’s non-place. Whilst I am certainly not stating that it is right to force some to spend more time inside these places than others, I also do not believe that the time spent here is all negative. In this instance it has allowed me the time to reach out to my friends and family to ask for pictures of their homes - some of which I had not spoken to for some time. Additionally it allowed these moments of escape from the present and into the rickety house or at the opening of a deep cave. These moments are comparable to those inside the bus where one may text a loved one or catch up on a show that makes them feel calm. These times in themselves are not negative but infrastructure that causes some to spend more time in these places than others might be. It is here where I believe the sense of temporal irregularity becomes more apparent.
At the beginning of this project I felt fairly removed from my subject matter. However, as my project progressed I was forced to become more deeply and more personally involved. Retrospectively I can see how my role in this project shifted from researcher to case study as I drew on my own experiences, analysing my own poetry and my own art made in these times. It was from these anecdotal and personal experiences that I was able to regrasp my previous research. It could be said that this project became auto-ethnographic. These experiences allowed me to connect more deeply to the wider cultural issue I had initially been investigating and recontextualise it within the new normal. As time continues (stuttered or not) I will continue to examine the label of non-place in response to home. I will see whether these feelings change for me and others as lockdown is slowly eased and whether the home will return once more to being just a place.
Caroline Criado Perez (2019) Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, : Vintage Publishing
"Men are most likely to have a fairly simple travel pattern: a twice-daily commute in and out of town. But women’s travel patterns tend to be more complicated. Women do 75% of the world’s unpaid care work and this affects their travel needs....A working woman with a child under the age of five will increase her trip-chaining by 54%; a working man in the same position will only increase his by 19%."
Perez, Caroline Criado. Invisible Women (p. 37-38)
I first came across Caroline Criado Perez on the popular podcast 99% invisible. She spoke passionately about the world of design and architecture and where the biases lie here in terms of gender. The takeaway from her book is that sex-disaggreated data needs to be collected if there is ever a chance of creating a more equal world. In terms of travel, Criado-Perez highlighted many other reasons for the poorly designed travel network for carers that I have not mentioned in this essay. These are the atypical travel patterns of carers, where travel data comes from (non sex-disaggregated data), who this data tends excludes (women), and who was initially involved city transport (buisness men). The focus in this book, as the title would suggest is very much on the gendered aspect of this role. I chose to refer to these people as carers in this instance simply because of the word constraint of this essay. With all the elements I wanted to discuss I thought that bringing in this aspect could take away from the other connections I was trying to make.
Augé, M. and Mackian, S., 1995. Non-Places: Introduction To An Anthropology Of Supermodernity. Verso.
"Everything proceeds as if space had been trapped by time, as if there were no history other than the last 48 hours of news, as if each individual history were drawing its motive, its words and images, from the inexhaustible stock of an unending history in the present" - Augé.Non-Places: Introduction To An Anthropology Of Supermodernity (p. 84)
Within recent decades their have been mass increases in time spent in public transport such as busses and airports or on motorways. In this work, Augé describes these as non-places and discusses the commonality amongst these places. These spaces are often filled with a vast amount of information, oppressing the person inside the space.
Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books, 2014.
Fisher writes about a society locked in time. Everyday life is speeding up and culture is slowing down causing a temporal pathology. Fisher believes the turning point towards the slow cancellation of the future that we find outselves in now was neoliberalism. Since then communication has become a command. We are in a time of perpetual busyness intensified through cyberspace. We have become a culture in which boredom is no longer. Boredom is utopic. No one is bored but everything is boring. London is like cyberspace but in a physical space - busy and overpopulated and all consuming and addictive.
Annual Chain Report (2017) [Available at: https://airdrive-secure.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com]
Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf, London: Routledge, 1994
Fisher, M., 2010. Capitalist Realism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.
Harris, K., 2020. UK Unemployment: Two Million People Have Already Lost Their Jobs Amid Coronavirus Crisis. [online] Express.co.uk
Hess, D. B., Brown, J., & Shoup, D. (2004). Waiting for the bus. Journal of Public Transportation, 7(4), 67-84.
ISLANDS: NON PLACES [Available at: https://store.steampowered.com/app/540510/ISLANDS_NonPlaces/]
Meng, M., Rau, A. and Mahardhika, H., 2018. Public transport travel time perception: Effects of socioeconomic characteristics, trip characteristics and facility usage. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 114, pp.24-37.
Korstanje, Maximiliano. (2015). Philosophical problems in the theory of non-place. International Journal of Qualitative Research in Services.. 2. 85-95. 10.1504/IJQRS.2015.076912.
Setter, O. and Zsolnai, L., 2019. Caring Management In The New Economy. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Yarmey, A. D. (2000). Retrospective duration estimations for variant and invariant events in field situations. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 14(1), 45-57.
99% Invisible (Episode 363) Invisible Women Episode [Available at: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/invisible-women/)
How the City Feels [Available at: https://cityfeels.itch.io/how-the-city-feels]
The Bus Journey I used came from youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgZp6UHJkHo
Processing, Runway, StyleGAN2
Transport Systems, Time, Temporality, Non-Places, Capitalism, Machine Learning, Feminism