Like an Arrow – Timelines Online

Groucho Marx’s aphorism “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana,” brings to mind some of time’s perceived attributes; its singular directionality, the speed with which it passes. But what is time “like” on a website? In particular how do online exhibitions achieve the concretization of such an abstract concept? One common solution is the use of a timeline.

The New York Time’s online exhibition “The Learning Machines”, The Evolution of Classroom Technology – Interactive Feature – provides an instructive case study in the use of timelines and how they might be utilized in our proposed exhibitions. Landing on the homepage the visitor is immediately reassured of the site’s provenance and authority by the presence of the New York Times logo. The logo also serves to remind us that physical newspapers are intrinsically ephemeral and drawing comparisons between this exhibit and that of a museum’s online permanent collection needs to be framed in this context. 

The fact that this feature forms part of an on-line magazine explains the webpage’s aesthetic, including the (paper) white background and the traditional serifed font. However, the initial impression is not so much of a newspaper as a minimalist white cube gallery.  The first item in the exhibit, a horn-book, floats incongruously out of this white space, the image strangely disembodied. Paradoxically all the artefacts are rendered with drop shadows in an attempt to lend some sense of physical materiality. However, there is no way to interact with the objects, to access higher resolution photographs or to view them in situ any of which might have achieved this goal more successfully.

Like many real-world and online exhibitions Learning Machines proceeds chronologically through history, starting in 1650 and finishing in 2010, allowing visitors to understand how each technology built upon its predecessors and conveying the sense of change over time. Possibly a more interesting and illuminating approach might have been to start in the present, in which we are all temporally located, and to move backwards, from the iPad, a “thing” that is in our everyday experience to the horn-book, a “thing” that is not.

Central to the concept of the timeline is the two dimensional spatial representation of temporality; it is a locus where the axes of space and time intersect. Simple timelines often represent time vertically as basic lists, marching from the top to bottom of the webpage from the past to the present. Of greater pedagogical value are those visualized graphically such as Learning Machines. Here the past is represented conventionally as being on the left and the present (and the future) on the right, reflecting the flow of written English. The cursor of our eye moving along a line of text separates the read on the left (the past) from the to-be-read on the right (the future). The situation is reversed in cultures where text is read right to left. Similarly, in the West the past is thought of as being behind us whereas in other societies the past is conceived as being in front of us; we know what the past looks like because it has been experienced whereas we cannot see the future, it is unknown and therefore behind us. The timeline of Santiago Ortiz referred to below explores this idea of using perceived depth to represent moving forwards and backwards in time.

The “Learning Machines” timeline is navigated either by using the next/previous buttons to move from one exhibit to the next or by clicking on the small bars on the timeline itself, each one representing a “momentous” event in the development of classroom technology. Scale, the physical distance used to represent a unit of time, is fundamental to our conception of the space = time equivalence. The pixel space occupied by these “moments” is no doubt a function of the site’s usability but it is worth noting that, relative to the unit of space allotted along the timeline to each century, each of these “moments” would proportionally last over a year. To facilitate navigation the timeline can also be expanded or contracted by means of the magnifying glass icons. A visitor is thus able to expand and contract time at the click of a button.

The spacing of the events along the timeline, determined by the selection of artefacts, argues that the speed of technological change has accelerated. However, it might well be that the curator is privileging the present by overlooking failed or superseded inventions and ignoring those which do not support his or her thesis i.e. that the iPad is merely the latest iteration in a long line of similar technologies. Indeed the use of a continuous timeline also implies some form of continuous agency, an uninterrupted cavalcade of achievement culminating in the iPad. Ironically the site is built using Adobe’s Flash technology which means that it cannot be viewed on the iPad, purportedly the apex technology on display.

The information given about each item is succinct verging on the terse, just a single sentence. The sole link from the site leads to related articles but no further information about the exhibits is provided. Ultimately the lonely image of the reading accelerator for example raises more questions than it answers. Exactly how was it operated? Who was the intended user? Did it work? If not, why not? Media archaeology techniques, as described and advocated by Thomas J. Schlereth, “Material Culture and Cultural Research” might provide some of the answers. However, despite all these concerns Learning Machines does succeed in its own terms by providing a clear and interesting interactive educational experience.

The limitations of the timeline as a tool is embodied in its very linearity. We need to cross that line. Santiago Ortiz for example has moved towards this in his Spiral del Tiempo where cosmic time is represented as a spiral. To facilitate envisaging the eons he uses a sliding logarithmic scale. The timeline to the power of ten. We could also experiment with the use of use of hyperlinks to engender a sense of the passage of time or in some way create a parallel between the actual time spent examining the exhibit and historical time. Perhaps the most important lesson we should take away from studying the Learning Machines is that, like Groucho, when we construct our own online exhibition we should visualize time less like an arrow and more like a banana.


Thomas J. Schlereth, “Material Culture and Cultural Research” In Thomas J. Schlereth,

Ed., Material Culture: A Research Guide (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985): 1-34.

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