Controlling the Space-Time Continuum, With Art

For just $19.99, Jonathan Keats will sell you a one-pound lead bar that he says slows down time (by less than a nanosecond).
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Jonathan Keats

Ever since Andy Warhol, few American artists have dared to be full-service public intellectuals, offering a fresh and disconcerting outlook on their society through social as well as aesthetic experimentation. The partnership of the Russian-born artists Komar and Melamid (which ended in 2003) was a rare exception; in the 1970s they created a market in human souls, which they bought for a dollar each.

The U.S. now has a home-grown multimedia philosopher-prophet in Jonathon Keats, who makes fine art at the intersection of profound and frivolous. Two years ago at The Atlantic, I reported on his exhibition "Copernican Art," a daring manifesto for mediocrity. His new exhibition, "Spacetime Industries, USA: General Relativity for Everyday Efficiency," is his answer to the gurus of business time management. Instead of devising scheduling techniques, he proposes people become more efficient with the use of “Time Ingots,” devices that manipulate the space-time continuum. (Pay no attention to the fact that this is currently impossible.)

I interviewed him by email about his current project.


Tell me more about Spacetime Industries. What's the company's objective? Are you open to investors or do you plan to remain privately held?

Spacetime Industries is in the business of time management. In the past, time management has been a euphemism for discipline: Either your employer orders you to work faster or you convince yourself that you should increase your productivity by working harder. In other words, it's psychological manipulation. In contrast, Spacetime Industries manages time itself. We do so by leveraging physics, specifically Einstein's theory of relativity, which treats spacetime as a unified phenomenon. Einstein discovered that time is relative. For instance, time moves more slowly in the gravitational well of a massive object than in the vacuum of space. Spacetime Industries transforms Einstein's abstruse insights into practical technologies, useful in business and personal life.

Taking into account the enormous amount of money already spent on time management books and consultancies, the growth potential for Spacetime Industries is vast, and the larger we become, the more people we can help to manage their time more effectively. So we are absolutely open to venture capital and to a future IPO. More important, we hope that large corporations and governments will be interested in our products, because the more people involved, the more efficient society can be. The potential for large-scale investment in time management can be seen by looking at our plans for time-managed cities, in which different neighborhoods are zoned to run at different clock rates (using spinning hubs to centripetally induce gravitation). Time in agricultural districts runs much faster than in residential districts, meaning that crops will grow faster while people live longer to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The more that we cooperate, the more meaningful time management becomes because time takes on meaning through our interactions. At the broadest scale, the objective of Spacetime Industries is to foster relationships, through the mechanism of time, for all civilization.

What is a Time Ingot and how do you recommend using it? For example in a business setting, for optimal effect how close should it be placed?

A time ingot is gravitational ballast for temporal micromanagement. In other words, it's a one-pound lead bar that dilates time, much as time is dilated by a black hole or a neutron star. While the dilation is considerably less than would be achieved by a black hole or neutron star, since a time ingot is considerably less massive than either, it's far more convenient: light enough to deliver by regular mail and compact enough to fit on your desktop.

In terms of use, proximity is key, especially since the effect is very subtle (perhaps less than a nanosecond in the time left before the universe succumbs to a big bounce or big rip or another cosmic cataclysm that renders time obsolete). I would suggest that you keep it safely stowed in a desk drawer until you're waiting for results. At that stage, you should take it out so that the wait is minimized for you, since time will be moving faster for everyone else. (For instance, you might take out the ingot after delegating a task to an employee of after placing an investment.) Of course the time ingot can also be used surreptitiously to slow down the actions of a competitor if it's suitably concealed in his or her office, though I cannot recommend this since it would be unethical.

How can your company's time dilation products be used in the current government shutdown?

The American public is waiting for congress and the president to resolve their differences. Distributing a time ingot to every citizen would help to decrease the public impact, since time would then move faster for the politicians than for everyone else.

Naturally, implementing my plan for time-managed cities at a national scale would be a better approach, since Congress and the White House could simply be moved onto a hub where time moves faster than the hubs where the rest of us live. Also if we base the election cycle on the politicos' frame of reference, the next election cycle would come much sooner from the perspective of voters. This might be a more general means of managing political gridlock.

Could Time Ingots become an alternative currency, like bitcoins?

To the extent that time is money, time ingots could serve as a good currency. Of course there's a long history of economic value being expressed in terms of time. In the medieval age, an English acre was defined as the area that a plowman could work in a single day. More recently, there have been units of money, such as the Labour Notes of 19th century England or Ithaca Hours, introduced in Upstate New York in the 1990s.

Time ingots would be much more effective than any of these, since they would have a physical impact. But they couldn't be represented on paper or electronically for easier handling. They would be the opposite of fiat currency.  Their most profound effect would be the opposite of the impact of bitcoins: By virtue of their massive bulk, they'd add ballast to the hyper-fast economy.

Do you think that artists can succeed in time management where the gurus have failed?

Time management is a problem that goes back to Benjamin Franklin, and Franklin's false assumptions persist in the books of business gurus such as Tim Ferriss and the products sold by companies like FranklinCovey. The whole premise is wrong: You cannot control time by personal will. Someone who doesn't come from a traditional business background—such as an artist or philosopher—can think about time in less individualistic terms, and can potentially guide society toward more collaborative approaches to making the most of the inevitable encroachment of entropy on everyone and everything in the universe.

Keats provided the captions below, which have been lightly edited.

Time ingots are one of several products offered by Spacetime Industries. The mass of each one-pound ingot dilates time locally. Due to the compact size, it can be used to manage time on a desktop or bedstand.

The time ingots are sold at Modernism Gallery—global headquarters for Spacetime Industries—for $19.99 apiece. Because they are made of lead, it is suggested that they be handled with care.

Time can also be managed by enlisting the mass of a planet, neutron star or black hole, any of which will dilate time significantly more than a lead ingot. Elevator House is designed to manage time at home by suspending each room on an independent elevator shaft. Space elevators are ideal. If Elevator House is built in orbit of a black hole, and if the elevator shafts are long enough to extend out into the vacuum of space, time in the basement will run nearly one-and-half times slower than at penthouse level.

While the architectural model for Elevator House is made of low-tech wood and steel, the actual house will be feasible only with materials that do not yet exist. Here the model is photographed with Jonathon Keats, who designed and built it for Spacetime Industries.

The most effective way in which to manage time is at the scale of an entire society. This blueprint for Metropolitan Time Machine No. 1 shows how relativity can be leveraged for a whole city. Hubs spinning at nearly the speed of light produce strong gravitation, dilating time significantly. By spinning different hubs at different speeds, districts can be coordinated to have optimal relative clock rates. For example, the residential district can clock slowly relative to the agricultural and industrial districts, providing residents with more goods over a longer lifespan.

Spacetime Industries can plan cities in myriad ways, to suit different cultures and populations. However it is recommended that the cities be situated in the vacuum of space in order to allow for maximum variation in time dilation and to decrease friction. A licensed contractor will be needed to realize these plans, as will multiple technologies that are currently unimaginable.

The most intimate time management product offered by Spacetime Industries is a time warp undershirt. A heavy patch of gravitational ballast locally warps time for a given organ. For instance, if the ballast is bolted over the wearer's heart, the wearer will get a fractionally-longer life without being mentally slowed down: Your brain will clock at the usual terrestrial rate while your heart will be in a fractionally slower time zone.

Several different time warp undershirts are available for purchase. Another version places the gravitational patch over the ovaries to slightly slow down the biological clock, as many women today would like to wait longer to have children.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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