Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Danny Hillis and Time

February 18, 1999

At John Brockman's "Billionaire's Dinner" I had a chance to talk to Danny Hillis Currently VP at Disney Imagineering R&D, formerly of Thinking Machines. Anyway, Danny is thinking about building a clock that will last for 10,000 years. We were talking about "Time" and I talked to him a little bit about the Japanese concept of "ma" that Takemura-sensei taught me. Takemura-sensei told me that the Japanese got their sense of time from water clocks from China instead of radial sun-dials so the idea of "ma" which means both space and time is more natural. Danny questions whether Japanese didn't have normal radial clocks very early. In fact, he thought that maybe the Chinese had normal clocks before the West.

Danny explained that he wanted people to wind the clock but to make the clock stop if unwound would probably not be a good idea so making the chimes need winding might be cool. He also talked about Ise Jingu, the temple in the Japan that is rebuild next to the old one regularly so the building is always fresh. I suggested a ritual where pieces of the clock were replaced regularly as a ritual so that every once and awhile, all of the parts were replaced. Like cells in our body. A pattern, rather than an object.

I asked Takemura-sensei to send me him paper which I forwarded to Danny. I also sent Danny a Edward Hall's Beyond Culture because he had not read about the idea of mono-chronic and poly-chronic time which Edward Hall describes.

Edward Hall talks about cultures which take time and space and put them in linear pieces. This allows scalable organized development, but is often not guided well by human common sense. In the middle east, time and space are not as defined. Often, bureaucrats in the middle east will have everyone come at once and they will do what they feel they need to do by their own priority rather than on a schedule. When they get too much work, the spawn another organization rather than scale the one that they have. In the West, you get large organizations, in mono-chronic cultures you get lots of small organizations. Anyway, interesting topic, great book.

Below is Takemura-sensei's paper on "ma".

"ma" is time and space in Japan. Before 645 AC(Taika no Kaishin) in Japan, Time idea and concept is nothing. After Taika no Kaishin (like a Tennoh-empelor renessance), time idea begun from Roh-koku(chinese water clock). water colock is just space time. Following my text, please take a look.

best, Mitsuhiro Takemura


"ma" by Mitsuhiro Takemura

It was 9 winters ago, when I visited the McLuhan Program at the University of Toronto to work, with director Derrick de Kerckhove, on the video conferencing project to link France, Canada and Japan. Derrick was repeatedly trying to project the metaphor of the Japanese "Ma" ("interval") onto the time difference and gap in image transmission that arises in long-distance communications. It was indeed interesting that he had focused on the structure of "Ma", which includes both time and space, but I wonder to what extent people are conscious of the concept of "Ma" in Japan today. Although I was born in Japan, I stood speechless and maintained a vague distance in the face of the French-Canadian Derrick's enthusiasm. In response to this unexpected word "Ma" I recalled the decisive difference in sound structure between East and West debated by John Cage and the contemporary music scene in the 1970s, while experiencing the pleasure of suddenly incorporating the conceptual door and inner world of Japanese traditional aesthetics represented by Noh or the tea ceremony.

Cultural DNA is an apt phrase, for there was a decisive experiential resource concerning Japanese traditional culture breathing inside me. Time in Japanese is written with the characters for time and "Ma", space with the characters for empty and "Ma", I suddenly thought of substituting the word "Ma" for media. To place an interval is to embody time, while the six-ma "Ma", applied to the Japanese "Tatami" room, allows one to instantaneously grasp space. For a long time in the West, people have questioned how this one word can express both time and space. The concept of the medium, the in-between, signifies the interval between time and space, and is similar to the concept of the web.

The function of the web, which weaves the internal world and unconsciousness of man, is the most important concept in trying to understand media. Until now, the massive, one-way media network has reflected, as the very word net implies, the ideology of capture, of rounding up the masses into a net. Hakim Bey, an advocate of the web and anti-copyright who had a decisive influence on cypher-punk, expresses with the word web not this type of net, but rather a web as a function of communication, actively weaving together the mutual intercourse of the scattered reference points of information. It could be compared to Sufi philosophy or the ambient "journey" woven together from nomads and nature.

In previous mass society, if you were excluded from the circulation system consisting of mass-produced advertisements and media devices it was difficult, even with superior content, to gain attention. The internet society, or the digital society, dismantles the circulation system that previously required a long duration of time and geographical expansion and infiltration. And as content and context instantaneously form a web of time and space, it produces a knot called"cyber-space/Ma" tying together time and space. In contrast to previous media circulation systems, which closed the gap between time and space, the web has already bestowed the flexible grid of "Ma" and a tribal response onto time and space. In this sense, freeware and web are truly new media systems in the context of cyberculture. The word network should now be converted to webwork.

The internet, by replacing the framework of the copyright with nomadic information, and by making the web, an interval of time and space, into a site of free intercourse, has been widely disseminated as media of a new dimension. It maintains a unique distance woven from webwork. Speed and delay, compression and expansion--such free editing is shaping current cyberspace. The time and space of the web, woven by countless tribes, is also the aesthetics of "Ma".

The fact that every year in Japan, June 10th is designated as "time day" is not well-known. The reason that this day was established as "time day" more than 70 years ago in 1920, is that over 1300 years ago in 671, during the Asuka Period, on April 25th of the old calendar (June 10th according to the solar calendar), the first water clock (rohkoku) was built in Japan. Today, people are not especially aware of this day, but in fact it was a tremendously important event in Japanese history. For until then there were no clocks in Japan, and the Japanese did not have any concept of time. Having only the concept of space as concrete existence appearing before them in reality, the Japanese were able to materialize the invisible, abstract existence of time through the water clock. The water clock measures time in terms of the quantity of water. Thus the physical quantity of accumulating water expressed time, which was understood as material quantity. In Japan, the concepts of ma and time have also included space ever since the appearance of the "rohkoku".

On the other hand, in the European concept of time, space maintained a different meaning. It is the history of the sundial, which follows a graduated row of numbers according to the movement of a shadow. Of course the sundial, which tells time according to a shifting shadow, maintains no concept of quantity as in the case of the water clock. The shadow that was at the previous notch becomes a shadow in the current position, and in the next instant will become another shadow, thus inscribing the passage of time. There is no reflection of the concept of space, but rather a progression along a row of numbers.

The Japanese"Ma", which had grasped space and even time in terms of quantity, has captivated many Western intellectuals as the mysterious spiritual structure of Japan, and has given rise to various accounts of the Japonesque, from the strange worlds of the rock garden of Kyoto's Ryoanji to the tea house.

Currently, the media of the inter-world called the web is weaving a new articulation with the traditional aesthetics that constitute the resources of Japanese experience and sensibility. The digital web, spreading across the earth like a nervous system, is evoking great changes in the physical world, in communication and the formation of communities in cyberspace, as well as in the industrial, economic systems which will be revolutionized by the digital network. We are facing the question not of how to design the completely new electronic world of cyberspace, but rather how to embody it. The historical experience and knowledge that human beings and the natural world have woven together will become an important factor in the design of this new ecosystem of information, the new world that has appeared on the earth, unaffected by gravity and whose concepts of time and space cannot be evoked by the old media. The emergence in the real world of an imaginary real society, in which unrealizable worlds are produced without end, conceals the complicit relationship of desire between human beings and the media. What we must consider seriously is the fact that media is the reflection of man's limitless desire. In the next generation of desire-designing media, we will need to discern an exquisite interval that reflects life-sized bodies and cultures.