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The Master Timeline and the Calendar of the Future

October 10, 2010

Everything is already digital. Everything is already online. The problem is that what’s online is digital versions of paper documents, television, radio, sound recordings, and other analog media. Just look at how many PDFs are still online, and how many catalogs still resemble their paper counterparts. As the web scales up to meet the needs of billions of users, some of us can see the cracks and inefficiencies really creeping in. The rise of popular services like Facebook and Twitter haven’t really helped us manage our information. A few thousand people in the world are pounding our shoes on the table, saying we are going to need a lot more structure and more standards to make things work properly. As I show in my book, we need to get back to basics and make things interoperable so we can really put our information to work for us.

I’ve mentioned this video before, but I really want you to see it now:

The calendar project is important, but something is missing. We need a universal timeline to hang our events and artifacts on. We already have a reference time signal that’s accurate to something like 20 decimal places, but we need a timeline everyone can hook to. This would be a public resource, like the time reference itself, but it would be a set of standard tags for attaching a time code to any event, starting with the big bang itself. A lot of scientists want to talk about the first few millionths of a second after the big bang, and this would give them the ability to compare what they think happened when. Then we would have earth scientists hooking in their research, showing us the past four billion years of evolution on earth. And historians would put all their research findings onto the timeline for the last 10,000 years or so.

Here in the present, we would use the timeline for many parts of our daily lives. We’d use it to schedule phone calls and meetings. Our cameras would automatically calibrate and attach the correct time of photos, so that all photos online would eventually be tagged with time tags from this single unified timeline. News events and video footage would be time coded so they could be put in sequence. Video feeds could be coordinated with other event-driven content. Courts could use it to re-create the sequence of events around a crime or an accident. Insurance companies would use it to help straighten out claims. The patent office could probably use it to help establish when things were invented. Scientists would use it in research to tag every piece of data, including all the highly time-sensitive data coming out of high-energy particle colliders. People with opposing claims or theories could still tag to the time codes they want, and then we can put things together in different sequences and use filters to weed out spurrious claims. Cars can send their location data tied to the timeline, and that could give us velocity data for learning more about traffic and accidents. That’s the cool thing about making a standard – a single standard can handle everything all at once, from particle collisions to group photographs to restaurant reservations, and then we can slice and dice the time-coded information as we like. So not only can I see how all my events and information fit together, I can see how they fit with other people’s events.

This timeline is just a set of standard tags everyone uses, like hashtags on Twitter. They should be integrated with the main map systems, including terrestrial, oceanic, and celestial maps. GoogleMaps is a good example of a strong spacial reference system. Now if we can tie in the timeline, we’ll be able to go back (and forward) in time to see how things looked. Anyone building a 3D model of an ancient monument would be able to tie it in, so you can go back to the time when it was active. Perhaps someone will then make software that shows the decay over the millenia, until it fits exactly with how it looks today.

As our tools generate more and more information automatically, we need a way to manage the data and put it into perspective. A universal timeline would be a small but important piece of infrastructure for the world of pull I describe in my book. This universal timeline isn’t a place or a web site. It’s just a set of standard tags coordinated with today’s reference signals. It would be easy to build them off our current standards for time measurement. And it could be governed by the W3C and ISO.org. If you want to add jargon to it, you could call it a semantic timeline, but “The Reference Timeline” is probably the best name for it. We don’t need a few competing standards, we just need one.

I’ve done some looking around and haven’t heard of this idea or seen any discussions online. There are a few academic projects and people thinking about it, but nothing with the scope I have proposed. Please go learn more about the calendar project, and let me know if you’re building a reference timeline we could all use.

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