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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

real time

(1970’s | computerese | “clock time”)

Another departure from my chronological standards, “real time” was well established by 1980, though mainly in technical contexts. The expression has a few slightly different meanings that pretty much come down to simultaneity — one system changes more or less instantly as a parallel system does, generally as the result of new information. The other notion it conveys is time neither expanded (as in slow-motion replay) nor compressed (as in time-lapse photography). “Real time” demands strict observance of the clock, giving it still greater power to circumscribe our every thought and sensation.

As the expression has become more colloquial, it has leaned more on a preposition: “In real time” corresponds to “live” or “as it unfolds,” which seems like a perfectly natural development; sometimes it means no more than “up to the minute” or “at this moment.” The expression retains a strong technical bias, but it has been available to arts writers for at least thirty years. The concept is easily grasped and we all labor under the computer’s yoke, so it has become common property; most of us are capable of using the phrase in ordinary conversation, without quotation marks. It’s also available as an adjective. Despite a superficial resemblance, “real time” probably has nothing to do with the older “have a real time of it” — a rough time — which is passing from the scene.

Improving communication speed has been a primary technical goal for many centuries now. The days are over when Cecil Rhodes (according to Mark Twain in “Following the Equator”) could land in Sydney and make a fortune because he caught and gutted a shark that thousands of miles away had eaten a man who happened to be carrying a newspaper with significant financial news — news much more recent than the “latest,” which came by steamship from England and was a month or two old. Those days ended with the invention of the telephone, the first long-distance real-time communications device. (It took several decades before intercontinental telephone calls became feasible, of course.) A hundred years later, in the 1970’s and ’80’s, a lot of money and effort were still being spent to improve data transmission speed and the ability of various kinds of software to incorporate fresh observations or calculations quickly and accurately. Data velocity has not decreased in the years since, and the packages have grown enormous. Files that would have taken days to send thirty years ago, if they could be sent at all without overwhelming the network, now arrive in seconds. The combination of increasing speed and vast volume have made possible dizzying advances in a range of fields, not to mention terrifying information overload.

The changes real time hath wrought — in banking, medicine, journalism, and on and on — are too numerous and well-known to list. We may think of it mainly in economic terms, counting the ways faster movement of bytes and more and more seamless coordination between networks and devices have enabled us to make money. But there are other forces at work. One is simply the drive to innovate and improve, so fundamental to technological advance. The other is its complement, greed for novelty, not necessarily caused by cupidity, which creates the cheering section for the engineers and programmers who find ways to make it all work faster and better. The early adopters, in turn, make it financially possible to maintain the techies by enabling the middlemen to make a profit off their work, and we’re back to money.

If my count is correct, this is the 400th expression Lex Maniac has written about at greater or lesser length. My first association is with the Four Hundred of nineteenth century New York society, perhaps not the most fortunate. Second is auto races, also a little out of place. “Into the valley of death”? Doesn’t sound right, either. An inauspicious milestone.

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