Synchronizing Uncertainty:

by Brian House

Google’s Spanner and the Foreclosure of Time

In my practice as a media artist and musician, I frequently represent “big data” through sound. This has prompted a parallel, theory-driven investigation into the relationship between temporality and databases. In this proposed paper-presentation for PARSE, I investigate the particular way in which the very notion of time is restructured by contemporary, large-scale, network-distributed databases, exemplified by the largest of all, Google’s Spanner. Deployed in 2012, Spanner obfuscates temporal uncertainty in a way that concretizes what I identify as an emerging cultural sense about how space, time, and data are entangled.

I employ a triple methodology. First, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s media archaeological approach to the hard disk drive and the concept of “random access” serves as a template for diagramming technology on the far larger scale of the distributed database, in which random access happens on a geographic scale. I propose that such infrastructure constitutes a timekeeping device in itself, which necessitates an examination of what it means to “keep time”. For that I turn to a historical approach and Peter Galison’s account of clock synchronization and its tie to industrialization and modernism, and I extend this genealogy to contemporary network cables, GPS, data centers, and Google’s specific innovations with Spanner. Finally, I draw on the work of Anna Munster and an art and cultural studies perspective to expand on the ontological, political, and aesthetic implications of large-scale data and the synchronic temporal conception that they engender.


Brian House’s artistic and academic work traverses alternative geographies, experimental music, and a critical approach to data. He is currently a doctoral student at Brown University in the Music and the Modern Culture and Media departments, and his work has been shown by MoMA in New York, MOCA in Los Angeles, Ars Electronica, Kulturhuset in Stockholm, Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, and Eyebeam, among others.