Text bars and temporal order

One image I was shown by the chronobiologists to explain the medical importance of their work on circadian rhythms (the beat of time in the human body

One characteristic feature of the Sandbox, I'm finding, is that the intensity of exploration generates insights in such profusion that it's all one can do to scribble them down. A few that are essential to the prototyping are immediately absorbed into the practice, while the others wait, a chaos of documents to be processed once the pace slackens, as at some point it must.

A few weeks ago I referred to a day I spent with some chronobiologists, moonlighting on another, quite different, time-related Amblr project. At the time I planned to blog more fully about its relevance toThe Next Time[line]. I can tell you now that it was a fascinating discussion, though I'm not sure I can offer a coherent summary of what was said: the Sandbox effect, again.

What remains with me vividly, though, was one image I was shown by the chronobiologists to explain the medical importance of their work on circadian rhythms: the beat of time in the human body, right down to cellular level. It was a graph comparing the activity in two test subjects, one a control, showing orderly columns of sleep and rest, the other haphazard, diagnostic evidence of the very earliest signs of Alzheimers Disease.

Their research, I was told, had results that could help discipline the activity in the second column into a greater order; could, perhaps, at least delay further disintegration. That potential seems wonderful to me, though, with my current preoccupations, the images held another, odd visual resonance.

Until now, the ideas that informThe Next Time[line]have been presented in quite abstract terms, partly from a desire not to jinx the project with premature disclosure. For a while at least that won't change much; indeed, the project is in some ways inherently about abstraction: the graphical representation of textual narrative and its structures. But here, at least, is a slightly more generous glimpse of the Wordsworth timeline that was one of the precursors of this digital project.

Created by Stefanie Posavec and me for The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, it is installed on the wall of the Rotunda building there in two forms, each around four metres wide. Commissioned to popularise understanding of Wordsworth's creative process, it shows how ideas and text flow through the many different manuscripts of his great autobiographical poemThe Prelude, on which he worked for more than half a century. What you see here is perhaps one twentieth of the whole, a section showing two columns of text: working manuscripts of the complete poem.

The visual echo of the chronobiologists' graphs of the healthy patient is mere accident but it is tempting to imagine deeper resonances: the poet's patient labour of revision an expression of the disciplined mind, recollecting emotion in tranquillity, shaping it into patterns of coherence, and adjusting these narrative patterns in light of experience and the passage of time. 

The graphic above was laboriously hand-crafted, while that which we are working towards in the Sandpit is computationally generated from data, gathered in this instance by human discretion but perhaps, in later incarnations, according to rules stipulated by experts. Below it appears in its barest from: not yet equipped with any of the mechanisms of gestural manipulation that will prompt it to deliver meaning – to illuminate and reconfigure, revealing relationships and, in them, stories.  Already, though, it feels to me human and enticing.

What you see here is a mind at work, processing memory into extraordinary poetry, jotting fragments of verse into notebooks, crossing out and correcting, reordering and embellishing. It is a highly artful process but one no different, in essence, to how we all constitute the narratives of experience that define our personalities. It is not the poem itself (though the poem lies behind it, literally and figuratively), but it represents the story of a life in, I believe, different but equally vital form.

In the next post I will tell you about our first testing sessions, whether our invited users were similarly enticed, along with whether (and how) they understood what they were meant to do. I'll also reveal something of the team workshop that followed it. Taken together they challenged my original sense of the purpose of The Next Time[line] in profound ways, cracked open many questions that I had overlooked and, in so doing, expanded my sense of what it could become.

Before writing about the Next-but-one Timeline, though, I will need to shuffle my thoughts into greater order, and edge-tap those chaotic documents into neater columns. I'm sure I'll feel all the better for doing so.