High Latency: Faith as a Necker Cube and the Erotics of Lag
Brian Christian

Discussed: funk drumming, audio engineering, kelp, object-oriented programming, epistemology, The Matrix, middle school orchestras, photography, saccades, the Chicago Bulls, Arthur Sze, etymology, orgasms, Dharma & Greg, Roland Barthes, drunk dialing, James Gleick, Heather McHugh, Albert Camus, Bertolt Brecht, World of Warcraft, subjective idealism, limericks, God, Necker cubes

Both my grandfather and my uncle have had careers as professional drummers, and my father and I are compulsive tappers, our fingers fidgeting endlessly on every available surface—a dashboard, a tabletop, a thigh. It gets to the point where if someone asks me a question, I often find I literally can’t respond until I come to the end of the pattern I’m on and end it with some short fill or flourish. I turned to the drums the way I turned to philosophy—with ambivalence, knowing that I was, in some sense, encouraging what were already socially dubious compulsions but deciding that if the ship had already sailed, if I was resigning myself to those compulsions for the long haul, I might as well learn to do them with some degree of skill.
       I joined my middle school orchestra and then, in high school, bought a kit and took up lessons in funk drumming with a bald, goateed Harley rider who had taught himself on empty laundry detergent boxes in postwar Germany, who played louder when I wore earplugs and who, one day, ended up in jail for tax problems. My funk training came to an abrupt end.
       In college, my interest migrated from the kit to its abstraction in electronic music (where my youth behind the set and youth in front of the screen merged happily), and from there into the more scientific areas of sound design and sound engineering. Along the way, I fell out of practice altogether—in part because drums are simply impossible to fit into a dormitory room, and in part because they are simply impossible to practice in a dorm without a price being put on one’s head.
       As it turns out, the drums are also one of the most cumbersome instruments to record. This is to a certain extent intuitive: recording studios, we know, isolate the individual singers and instrumentalists into separate, soundproof booths where they can be recorded without contamination from one another. A drum set, which for a professional could have thirty individual elements or more all packed into a few square yards of each other, clearly runs afoul of this isolating impulse.
       An engineer with top-of-the-line equipment and working for top dollar will do as much as possible to mic each of these elements, no matter how many or how close, in a way that will send a “pure” signal through each mic channel—one mic, one drum element, no contamination. A thick kelp of wires coming off the set like electrodes. The engineer then mixes these theoretically pure signals back together after the fact to recreate the performance.
       Much if not most of the time, the engineer will use instead the obvious alternative: mics that pick up a number of drums at once. The technical problems incurred by this approach are oddly illuminating of various philosophical problems in subjectivity, perception, and ontology—to which we’ll turn in time. For just a bit longer, though, we stay with the drums.

It’s worth noting that in order to play on the beat, a drummer has to move his limbs in the correct tempo, but slightly ahead of the beat, so that the hits arrive on time. I always thought it fascinating that the neural signals getting routed out to the muscles would tick out an electrical rhythm within the body that would neatly anticipate the audible one.
       As much as I still like this notion, it turns out to be much more complex than that. Different drums are different distances away, and some have different playing mechanisms (the kick drum is pedal-operated, for instance). Furthermore, the harder one wants to hit a given drum or cymbal, the longer the distance needed to accelerate the hand or foot—a real wallop on the snare, say, requires a full-on windup.
       It therefore stands to reason that if one initiates the movements in a completely metronomic fashion, the sounds will not be metronomic: the harder hits come later and the softer hits come sooner. (Ditto for drums that are farther versus closer.) It amazed me to think that while my cognitive experience of the drums is of pacing the strokes out evenly, the reality is that with each separate stroke, the neural/muscular apparatus schedules an appropriate “lead time” for the action that gets the stroke to land on time. So it’s likely that, if we were to somehow record the signals getting sent out from the drummer’s brain to his muscles, we’d get not an analogue of the drum beat itself, as I’d once imagined, but rather an arrhythmic mess.
       When drummers warm up, especially at an unfamiliar kit, they do something additional which many musicians don’t have to do, and they do it entirely unconsciously—in order to get the right lead times for that particular configuration of drum elements in space, they must tune their muscle memory. When you factor in that the signals the hands send to the brain in registering their hits (constant time, because the arm is always the same length, extended or not) reach the brain asynchronously with the sounds of those hits (variable time, because they are different distances away), the brain’s ability to pull it all together becomes all the more impressive.
       Here we arrive at the real crux: that the sound ringing off the vibrating heads and cymbal plates moves at a finite speed. When that drummer performs this miraculous neural tuning, he does so for the hits to arrive at his ears in synchrony.
       The trouble enters when you add a second point of view—when you mic the drum set, for instance. The individual elements’ sounds may not reach the mic as synchronously as they reach the drummer’s own ears. Barely perceptible timing subtleties may be a drummer’s signature, so this can be a critical concern. With two or more microphones, the trouble gets worse—arrival time differences of a hundredth of a second or less can put a drum “out of phase” with itself and distort the sound audibly.
       Now: remove the presence of a single performer-brain to organize all of the timing data, expand the distances between elements to the width of an orchestra, and the distances between microphones to the length of an orchestra gallery. You’ve got a serious problem.

Computer science, and object-oriented programming in particular, has a strange way of personifying its subject matter. This occurs most strikingly with epistemological states—knowledge and belief—when objects or methods are said to “know” about each other and about certain variables’ values. Strange as this way of talking might seem, it’s essential to the discipline, and what results is a kind of uniquely quantitative epistemology. The truly curious thing, though, is that this way of thinking readily, if not uncontrollably, expands to the natural world as well. The sun “broadcasts” its appearance. Eight and a half minutes later, the earth “knows” about it. If the sun, say, all of a sudden exploded and sent deadly radiation our way, note that we would not have eight and a half minutes’ warning because the radiation would arrive right alongside its appearance—which is, after all, also radiation. (This is the same reason that Neo’s “bullet-time” dodges in The Matrix succeed against handguns but would fail against, say, a laser-based weapon. Neo wouldn’t be able to see the ray coming towards him because its appearance would not be able to outpace the ray itself.)
       Astronomers suspect that a fair number of the stars in our sky have already blown out—but we’ll have to wait millions of years to see. At a distance, all you can know about a star is its past. It might be dead even as you “hear” from it.
       Technically this is also true of anyone you are speaking to over the phone.

It seems only natural that musicians maintain synchrony by listening to each other, coordinating their playing so that the sounds they’re making arrive with the ones they’re hearing from the others. Our middle school orchestra director warned us that this was a huge mistake.
       Sound is slow. By the time the sound travels across the orchestra, enabling the double bass players, say, to hear the French horns, the horns are on to the next note already. For the horn players then to hear the (already late) note of the basses come back to their side of the orchestra will take that much time again. Each section, then, feels as if it’s playing slightly ahead of all the others. Each musician does, in fact. The ones for whom things sound aligned are the ones who have fallen behind. To stay in time, they come to trust the arm of the conductor over their own ears.
       Like the body of the drummer and its asynchronous neural firings, the body of the orchestra endures cacophony so the audience won’t have to. They don’t get to hear how good they actually sound.

The way that our information about farther-away stars is older and further out of date than our information about near stars, all information’s freshness can be mapped, whether directly or indirectly, to distance. My information about my knees, for instance, is slightly more current than my information about my feet. (For the computer scientist, even kinesthesia is a data stream.) And my information about my clavicles is more current still, closer by both touch and sight.
       Likewise, any photograph is not a frozen instant in time, but rather a cascade of frozen instants, receding neatly into time as well as space. The background of a photograph is older than the foreground. If we’re being precise, a photograph shows us something impossible: the coexistence of the background, say, in state x, and the foreground in state y. But these states were not simultaneous. Every photograph, then, an anachronism; a collage; a fiction.

Cognitive science tells us that when you’re speaking about something nearby—an object, a person, a part of the scenery—you glance at it, on average, 900 milliseconds before you mention it. As a listener, you look at something 500–1,000 milliseconds after it’s mentioned. The listener’s eye motions, called “saccades,” follow the speaker’s fairly exactly, but stay two seconds behind.

Talking on the phone to a friend in Chicago, with the Bulls game on both our TVs, I hear her start to cheer. But nothing’s happened. I watch, then, as a Bulls player makes a desperate three-point shot that sure enough,—I feel as if I’ve glimpsed the future somehow—goes in.
       But the fans in the stadium were already cheering by the time my friend knew about the shot—and the fans in floor seats were already tensing up to shout even as the shot’s familiar swish was still on its way to the nosebleed section—

by the time you know the brightest yellow of a cottonwood leaf,
it’s somewhere else

—Arthur Sze

How good they actually sound”—we must not forget our indirect object here: sound to whom? Ay, there’s the rub.
       Even if all members of the orchestra play at the exact same time, the percussion section, standing in the rear, makes it to the conductor and the audience last. (Are they trained to jump the gun to counterbalance this?) And depending on where listeners are seated, the distances to each performer will vary slightly, affecting both the timing and the amplitude of each and producing a unique “mix” of the orchestra for each listener.
       The “tightest” orchestra sonically will be the closest together physically. The audience member hearing the closest likeness to what you’re hearing is probably your nearest neighbor. Acoustics begins to suggest the way in which physical and psychic intimacy—our two senses of closeness—are interlinked.

If you’ve ever spoken on the phone to someone who was also near enough that you could hear their voice directly, you’ve noticed that their voice arrives through the air a good couple tenths of a second before it arrives on the phone. It’s a very surreal effect.
       Though our phones can connect us to each other across thousands of miles, those tenths mean something. There are things one can’t do because of them, certain conversational dynamics that are prohibited—rapid-fire exchanges, interjections, interruptions, for instance. Perhaps a fuller understanding of lag—as, in some sense, the fundamental medium of human interaction—will make us better able to be maximally intimate with one another. Perhaps we may even begin, its frustrations and limits no different than the body’s own, to eroticize it.

Lag—from the Middle English lagmon, the man falling behind.
       Latency—from the Latin latēns, lying hidden.
       Though they’re near-synonymous in the jargon of science, the etymological connotations are nearly opposite: one suggests a falling away, the other a coming toward. There’s a pathos to something lagging—a weakness, a failing—whereas the latent suggests instead a kind of saturation of potential which is almost … sexy.

There is, I find, a very compelling intimacy between our now-proverbial double basses and French horns—there’s not time to wait for the other, not time for any kind of assurance before plunging forward into action. The condition of the lover falling backwards, eyes closed, without confirming the presence of the other, or, more intensely, saying “I love you” for the dangerous, precarious first time with the response unknown—that is the state these performers live in, the only condition under which they can make their music.

What is more intimate, more erotic than a lover’s taut announcement: “I’m coming—”
       What is this but the revel of the not-yet-incident, the proclamation and promise of latency?
       (Dharma: “You know what my favorite part was?” Greg: “The part where you yelled, ‘This is my favorite part! ’?” Dharma: “No. The part right after that.”)

Back to music, ever so briefly—Roland Barthes says that the fundamental constitution of musical time is delay, the erotic charge of anticipating the beat but being forced to wait for its arrival—

For intimacy over the phone, dial drunk. James Gleick: “Depressants like alcohol slow time, because the brain receives fewer inputs per second.”
       We might also suspect that phone calls when drowsy or sleepy are also more intimate, and phone calls while alert or caffeinated, less.

Heather McHugh: “At the moment we speak of a present, we create a past. (‘Just now,’ says an American, and means a certain moment in the past.)”
       And like stars, the farther away we are, the further into the past we experience one another, even as we interact “in real time.” (Note, for example: the farther you stand from the mirror, the younger, and the less like you, the person staring back is.) To be most physically present with each other is to run the parallel tracks most closely together, to align most closely—faces touching—our present tenses in time. If we exist not only in space but in time, then to be as close as possible physically is also to be as close as possible to the temporal seat of the other’s mind. One never quite achieves it, not fully, of course …
       The way that sex, if we follow Aristophanes’ explanation of lovers as once-whole beings cleaved apart by lightning, might constitute the human attempt to cleave physically back together, perhaps kissing—whether Eskimo, butterfly, French, or simply osculation in its mathematical sense—a contact of two curves—might be the psychic equivalent.

Fixing c, as you near me,
You are approaching my version
Of now.

Each brain, marooned and lonely in a present in which it has no company, about which it has no information. Your face against mine is your face at the window of that cell.

The gap from incident
to its incidence,
the delay between your touch
and its
arrival is unbearable. Shoulder
that pain with me.

Remembering, after all—the lag between the pulse in my chest and the pulse in my wrist is what it means to live.

We interact through latency as much as through our bodies.
       Barthes: “one could talk here with Brecht of a veritable ‘distancing’”—the way Brecht’s plays, by exposing their own mechanics, jolt the audience out of the anti-aliased fantasy world of the play and more wholly into their own seats, their own skins—
       Perhaps the body, meshed in time, ought to behave as one of Brecht’s “anti-absorptive” texts—with lag not to be imagined away or dismissed as trivial or swum against, but made candid—and in that way, with the mechanism laid bare, we are most exposed, most intimate.

Media of varying latencies leverage their unique relationships with time to produce different brands of intimacy—the quick-moving text message saying one was just now being thought of and producing the empathic delight of a moment shared across space between two minds; the slow-moving postal letter or handmade gift saying that one was being thought of at length without knowing it, impregnating future days with the sheen of possibility.

How, then, to be most present to one another when present with one another? Touch, of course, but make the interaction in general highly time-dependent: cut each other off—interject—halt—make it unclear whose turn it is—to speak?—finish each other’s sentences—make the interaction a fragile, improvisatory dance of timing—less the following together of a set score or choreography—as with the orchestra—than something friskier, jazzier, more dialectical—a kind of juking—to clarify between homonyms here—not from the root joog, “wicked,” referring these days to a grinding contemporary dance style—though we must permit lovers that too, certainly—rather from jowken, “supple movement”—referring to the side-stepping dance-feint in athletics—a realm beautiful for its intricate, brittle time-dependencies above all—

It is in the quick exchanges of conversation, as opposed to monologue, that the saccades begin to coordinate, that two people are most likely to be looking at the same thing at the exact same time. The two-second gap between speaker and listener can be dissolved through frequent inversions—when such inversions are possible.

Various familiar walking metaphors for love—walking hand-in-hand, walking in lockstep—actually miss the most salient feature of that walking. Albert Camus—“Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend”—comes closer, but not all the way. What we want falls into Camus’s excluded middle: not the two of us side by side, nor one ahead and the other behind, but something stranger, truer, more delicate:

The other day I was watching my two housemates play the “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” World of Warcraft together—each computer sending, at intervals, information about the position of one to a central host server which then reported it back to the other. Even though the two of them sat side by side, the information had to travel all the way to the server, get processed, and come all the way back—they were as lagged as anyone else on the network.
       (Interesting: conglomerations of large groups of players will dramatically increase lag, because the server is forced to send each player’s information to each other player, a function that grows with the square of the group size. Because real-world physics is processed—if it is at all—in parallel, not serial, real-life gatherings don’t have this drawback. So solo adventures in real life are closer to their virtual counterparts in WoW than social ones are.)
       Until the strange thing happened, I only half watched. I thought about George Berkeley, the eighteenth-century philosopher whose “subjective idealism” says that we can only know our sensations for sure—objects are hypothetical entities that we propose for the bundling of similar sensations or ideas. His view is one of the only ones I know that can be (and, in fact, is) summarized in limerick form—this by Ronald Knox:

                  There was a young man who said “God
                   Must think it exceedingly odd
                              If he finds that this tree
                              Continues to be
                   When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

                   “Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd;
                   I am always about in the Quad.
                              And that’s why this tree
                              Will continue to be
                   Since observed by Yours faithfully, God.”

The continued existence of objects when our back is turned on them falls to the unblinking eye of God, whose part in the WoW universe is played neatly by the server. Philosophers have agonized about how Berkeley’s intuitions about sensation and perception—which seem intuitive enough—might work in a world without a God performing this function. Without a single, objective, authoritative account, things get strange fast. The more salient and surprising thing, though, is that this authoritative account, even if it existed, might fail to be relevant. Latency makes this so.
       Consider the phone company’s records (if they have them) of a cell phone call. What they have is a recording of something that never happened. Each caller experienced his own side of the conversation latency-free and the other’s side in high-latency. The recordings of these conversations from each end of the line would not be the same, and neither would correspond to the signal that passed through the phone company’s switchboard or satellite, with each side lagging by half—a conversation which, in a very real sense, never occurred.
       Every photograph may be an anachronism, but would a magical time-synched photograph, with the background in exactly the same “moment” as the foreground, be any realer? It would correspond only to a state of the world which might have “been” but which no one, save God, could have seen.
       Maybe, if anything, His is not some “objective” transcript of our world but the multistable perception of an optical illusion viewer—the Necker cube’s wobble of twin front faces, both sides’ reciprocally lagged hearings of the conversation at once, a thousand mixes of the orchestra at once through the audience’s 2,000 ears, the stars through humankind’s billion-fold compound eye. I thought this through until a moment came that stopped me cold.
       My eyes flicked back to the screen. My housemates’ characters stood at the bottom of a staircase, with some battle raging, presumably, at the top and over to the other side. They paused at the base of it, and the game’s camera put the same image of the two of them there in stereo on the two monitors. They were in a dangerous place, where a failure to stick closely together or coordinate seamlessly could surely be fatal—they paused another half-second and then took off, rushed up the stone stairs, into danger—and not—the incredible thing—not side by side, not single file, but—amazed as I watched the two monitors display incongruous images—each ahead of the other.
       Their mutual trust, their faith: not a leap to be made at one go, but to be renewed with each step—wobbling out of objectivity, bistable—running just ahead of time.