Issue 16 / Clouds

March 27, 2022
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Computing in Crip Time

Christine T. Wolf

Where does rest figure in our everyday experiences with technology?

I walk slower these days. Walking used to be about where I was going next: moving fast and hard through space. I paid less attention to the here and now; here was en route to my tomorrow. My old pace matched my lifestyle—stomping through a long Bay Area commute and a calendar packed with business travel. A life filled with too much working. 

After my spinal cord injury, that all changed. Now, I walk slower. My engagement with the world is different. I no longer just move through space, I spend time there. I spend time here, now. I use a cane to steady myself. My cane is not only an assistive device, it is a symbolic one. My cane signals to others: the way I am interacting with this space is different, and beware, the way you will interact with me is different, too. Disability has redefined my relationship to many things. Not only with spaces, as I describe, but also with time. I now meet the world differently, with a different body, and this body moves, thinks, and acts at a different pace. This is crip time

“Crip time” describes the alternative relationship many disabled people experience with time. As Ellen Samuels, a disability studies scholar, puts it: “Crip time is time travel.” There are many layers to crip time—from the simple fact that many of us walk or roll through space slowly, to the altered trajectories that unfold over the course of a lifetime. Crip time forces a confrontation with the messy realities of the non-normative, all the ways that our temporal experiences fall outside our expectations. Instead of looking to the norm—the averages, patterns, and trends that fill data-dripping techspeak—crip time provokes us to wonder: What about the peculiar? What about the ad hoc, the irregular, the one-off? What about the unique messiness of the here-and-now?

Because I now walk slower than before, I notice much more: uneven and poorly maintained sidewalks, worn-out or missing “six feet” social-distancing floor stickers, the monstrosity of stairs. I notice when places are not built for people like me. But I also notice everyday beauty. A slower pace allows me to see the craft tangled in the mundane. I notice the playful swooping geometry of songbirds and the peppery glitter of tree shadows as they jump across the path in front of me. I have to take breaks and let my body rest. I must care for myself in ways I never did before, in ways I was never taught to. Will I be able to find something sturdy to sit awhile and rest? What will I do if I can’t?

Exiting the Flow

Where does rest figure in our everyday experiences with technology? I work as a user experience (UX) researcher. As UX professionals, we learn about the psychology of response times and how they relate to human thresholds around human-computer interactions. A machine can move too fast for a person to comprehend, which is not ideal. There is a sweet spot, according to industry expert Jakob Nielsen, to aim for: somewhere between 0.1 and 1.0 seconds is ideal for the system to stay in line with a person’s flow of thought. Ten seconds is the outer limit that a user will wait before getting bored or frustrated in waiting for a system response.

But why do we get bored or frustrated? In our cult to the gods of relentless busyness, continuous digital activity feels holy. Corporate life pressures us to act quickly. We have become accustomed to high-speed internet connectivity and vast computation processing, all of it occurring with near-simultaneity as our fingers release a tap. We scroll, and scroll, and scroll—our feeds feel endless and our clicks take us seamlessly from one task to the next. 

This feeling of being “in the zone” is a psychological state called flow, and has been a design concern since the early days of personal computing in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, the concerns were largely focused on designing workplace experiences that integrated PCs with analog-driven workflows in ways that didn’t create too much friction or drag, the opposite of flow. 

Living in crip time means that flow feels rare. Since my spinal cord injury, I no longer rally for a packed work calendar, where meetings bleed together after hours of social interactions over video teleconferencing. Now, I must be strategic. Crip time means I attend some meetings with my camera on, and some with audio only. Others I watch later as a recording. An audio-only meeting likely means I am attending the meeting while pacing, kneeling, or laying down, alternating positions to help relieve the spinal cord pressure and nerve pain that builds up over the course of the day. Watching recordings of meetings later creates lots of drag, as I move between recording files, PowerPoint decks, meeting chats, and relevant emails to make sense after the fact. 

But this drag can be meaningful in its own way, too. Just as my slowed-down walking means I notice more in the world around me, my crip meeting practice provides me space where I am able to notice differently. Now that I live in crip time, I am always on the hunt for the red buttons and icons of recordkeeping—digital parallels to the benches and seats I watch for now when I walk. Audio-only meetings mean that I am more comfortable physically—and thus can concentrate more freely on the meeting. I take notes and jam into the conversation when I need to. I focus on the dialogue rather than my appearance via webcam. Watching recordings after the fact, I can approach the meeting well-rested and in a comfortable setting. With the ability to hit pause, I am able to wonder, consider, jot down questions. These are all things that are difficult in the flurry of marathon meetings. 

It’s not that my crip meeting practice appropriates a kind of alternative productivity tool. Instead, my experiences of disability and of crip time have compelled me to wonder if “flow” is really the metric against which all our journeys of work and technology should be judged. As we enter 2022, year three of the Covid-19 pandemic, this question seems particularly acute. Those of us who are able to work from home have spent month after month booting up, logging on, checking our schedule, and loading our inbox each morning. We are expected to seamlessly enter the flow of remote work at super-highway speed, reproducing pre-pandemic levels of productivity and output, even as we continue to face a world in crisis.

The lens of disability studies and the experiences of the disabled offer us a different way of thinking about our experience of time. In Feminist, Queer, and Crip, Alison Kafer tells us: “Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular minds and bodies… Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds.” Just as I have come to learn from my own disabled body my new walking pace, the time it takes my body to finish the chores of independent living, I also learn how long it takes my body to bring an article like this together or to finish an important deliverable at work. Where before I let pressures of various sorts build up to optimize my output drive overwork, I now live in crip time. Things get done, just at a different pace. Doing is re-imagined and re-configured, a process driven by my body’s differing, situated abilities, instead of some trend, pattern, or prediction. Achievement is still possible—and I do still achieve—just on my body’s own terms. What are your body’s terms?

Christine T. Wolf is an artist and attorney turned social computing researcher who lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 16, "Clouds". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.