The Concept of Calendars and Their Potential Evolution
Sep 9, 2023
Throughout the annals of technological advancement, some tools have undergone dramatic metamorphoses, adapting to the rapidly shifting needs of society. Kevin's depiction of the evolution of digital collaboration offers a vivid snapshot of this progression. In the early digital age, a document was handed from one person to another through email. Person A would draft, Person B would edit, and then a Doc v2 would be sent again like a digital ping pong game. Then the paradigm shifted, enter Dropbox. Suddenly, the documents were in the cloud, floating freely and all the edits were on the same document, no more versioning nightmares. But while the document danced in real-time, communication lagged behind. Enter Google Docs. It merged the document's dynamism with a real-time discussion.
Just as we saw documents evolve in form and functionality, calendars too deserve a closer look. Have they truly progressed from their traditional forms? Sure, they transitioned from physical pages to pixels, but we observe the same grids, the same layouts. Yes, they now have notifications, color-coding and they are shareable, but can we confidently say this is an evolution comparable to our documents and the nature of collaboration’s transformation? One might argue that the essence of a calendar is so fundamental that the core cannot be changed. But isn’t communication equally, if not more, fundamental? The static journey of the calendars is not a testament to its perfection but an echoing silence of missed opportunities. When I stumbled upon Julian’s essay "Multi-layered calendars", it felt like a light bulb moment for me. I highly resonated with it because it felt like someone had taken my disorganized and messy thoughts and transformed them into a perfectly structured essay. I usually read Greeks and the Classics, I am not much of an article reader and I don’t exactly remember when or where I first encountered it. But I remember after reading it, I posted something on "Posts", I was hungry for more insights on software and the digital tools and their potentials, it made me want to read more. Witnessing Julian’s essay about note-taking softwares and then observing it crystallize into a software like "Lazy" is a testament to visionary thinking. Same goes for Kevin’s essay about collaboration and later seeing them embodied in the "Multi" app, it is truly remarkable.
Not only did it made me want to read more, it actually made me want to write more as well. Initially, I toyed with the idea of writing a personal introduction—covering the software I use, my daily workflows and the like, but it felt like too much of a casual blog post. Then, I thought I would write something like Judy Wajcman's "How Silicon Valley sets time", but it felt overly academic. What I am aiming for is a sweet spot between an essay and a blog post, a good balance between the informal style of a blog post and the structured nature of an essay. If it conveys a personal insight while still maintaining a degree of analytical depth, then it means I succeeded.
"Technology is a glittering lure. But there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in-house at a fur company with this old pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising was 'new.' It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It's delicate, but potent.
Teddy told me that in Greek, 'nostalgia' literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called 'The Wheel.' It’s called 'The Carousel.' It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved."
Probably the most memorable sales pitch in television history, Don Draper’s pitch for the Kodak Carousel is not just a marketing genius, it’s story telling at its finest. He doesn’t just pushing a product; he crafts a narrative of time travel through our own memories. Each slide isn’t just a picture, it’s an echo, a sensation, "a twinge in your heart". It’s tech, but with a soul.
But when strip away the charm, his ‘time machine’ is nothing but a projector spinning pictures. Before diving into conceptualizing our reimagined calendar, which would be GPT-4 to the carousel’s Clippy, it’s worth revisiting Julian’s essay to pinpoint two quotes that acted as the ‘Franz Ferdinand moment’ in my writing journey:
"Calendars, on the other hand, cover the entire spectrum of time. Past, present and future. They are the closest thing we have to a time machine. Calendars allow us to travel forward in time and see the future."
"Something I never really noticed before is that we only use our calendars to look forward in time, never to reflect on things that happened in the past. That feels like a missed opportunity."
At their core, calendars are tools designed for us to navigate time. As Julian put it, they are inherently "time machines" that guiding us through the past, present, and future. But most of us only use it for scheduling meetings, setting reminders and that’s pretty much it. It’s just scratching the surface of what calendars could be. While many tools have evolved dramatically over time, calendars seem to have stagnated. The improvement is long overdue.
The disparity between the sophistication of a spatial tools and their temporal counterparts is startling. While tools like Google Maps have reshaped our interaction with physical space, our instruments for time navigation, like Google Calendar, lag behind. Considering the power and versality of Google Maps: searching, saving, reviewing and comparing it to our current calendar apps, why can’t we search events with the same ease, bookmark significant moments, or craft our days, weeks, and months in similar fashion. Why don’t we have turn-by-turn navigation in time? Sure, some apps flirt with these ideas but their interface is nowhere near as intuitive or visually appealing as a spatial map. In her academic article, Judy Wajcman mentions designers who share their grievances over the traditional grid format of calendars, its inability to capture nuanced intentions or contexts. One of her interviewees even remarked "we still use a calendar pretty much the way we use a paper version. We’ve not yet created a new metaphor for interacting with it."
The amount of usage of the term "spatial" in my narrative is not just repetition, it’s deliberate. It is pretty obvious that our calendars need a significant overhaul, and the next wave of that evolution might be thanks to the Apple’s latest creation: Apple Vision Pro and the visionOS. Picture an app that presents a comprehensive timeline -or a lifespan map even- allowing us to seamlessly zoom between years, months, weeks, and hours. Imagine when you go to a specific day, you will see your calendar events, photos, notes and much more, which I will talk about in depth in the next paragraph.
I wouldn't call myself a data fetishist but I always felt like knowing thyself is the ultimate goal of the hero's journey. I use an expense tracker app called Nudget for every little transaction, last.fm is probably a better example for many people but I use RateYourMusic to track new albums I discover, same goes with Letterboxd and Trakt.tv for the movies and TV shows, I've tried Sleep Cycle and AutoSleep but they were not for me because I have a newborn and my sleep schedule is really all over the place. I wish I was but I don't go to gym at all, I still do check Apple Health app to see how many steps I've taken that day. Now this is somewhat entry level but there is this cultural phenomenon of self tracking, 'quantified self' which advocates "self-knowledge through numbers". We will come back to it.
When I did a further reading of Julian's essay, I came across this blog post by Devon, and at that time I was thinking of writing about calendars myself, so I thought it would make sense to take notes. But for every sentence I highlighted, the notes were the same two words: Life Cycle. Devon's insights and the way she uses calendars aligned uncannily with the ethos of the app. The app describes itself as "Life Cycle automatically keeps track of your time and presents your life sorted into slices. It shows you your daily activities, places you go, and who you spend time with. Life Cycle weekly journal provides personalized insights and clarity to your week passed." My experience with Life Cycle was instant captivation. The fact that it seamlessly recorded every location visited felt revolutionary.
It led me to visualize a future where a calendar app (ideally Amie or Cron) integrate something like this, it's just like how Devon uses her calendar "I often add events retroactively, i.e. events that have already occurred (which is useless to a calendar user who only uses it to prepare for future events)." but the hard part of manually adding events is now automated. Of course, it has its restrictions, because it is location based, it cannot differentiate between working at home and chilling at home for example. But why should we limit ourself with just one integration, right? What I have in mind is to combine the concepts of calendar, diary and quantified self practices to gain a holistic understanding of oneself, like interdisciplinary self-tracking data (integrative makes more sense probably) that will be the guide for AI powered, re-imagined calendar app that'll be like a personal assistant guiding us throughout the day (imagine the calendar version of Maps' turn-by-turn navigation).
Not just the day, Julian already mentioned health metrics integration like sleep, stress, fitness and meditation data. We could also add mental health/mood tracking, habit tracking, financial tracking, entertainment tracking and social tracking. Instagram's stories archive function already emulates a calendar's structure, why not take it to the next level? What you listened to three years ago at 02:10 may seem meaningless, but when you see it with the Instagram messages at that very moment, just when you are falling in love with someone, that would make that song, that exact moment, even that hour and minute very special. A revisit to a particular date with a mosaic of your tweets, stories, posts, even Hacker News/Reddit/YouTube comments, with the location, stress level and everything, the possibilities are truly endless. The browser history or apps like RescueTime, Toggl could work as Life Cycle but on the computer. VOIP.ms for phone calls, WhatsApp/Telegram for the messages, even Instacart for grocery shopping. The data is out there and AI is better than ever.
The one app I believe and hope to be this reimagined calendar app is Amie, I mean the word Amie literally means friend in French, right? Imagine an interface like Carrot Weather, where you can choose a personality, the default is just a friend like the name suggests, but you could go from a butler like Alfred to all the way to High Expectations Asian Parent. It will learn from all the self-tracking personal data integrated and give you suggestions like "you worked too much this week, how about we postpone this meeting and you spend some time with your family", "you always seem happier after listening to jazz, here's a jazz event happening near you", "looks like you've been spending too much lately, maybe cut down on shopping this month? I can give you recipes with what you have already?"
It would make Amie more than just a calendar, a life coach, a mentor, and a friend who really knows you. A new age diary that is living, breathing and adopting. Combining the elements of past, present and future, it will allow us to reflect on our lives with a nuanced understanding that was never possible before. Judy Wajcman ends her research article with a question that aged poorly: "Calendars will never ask us what we want to save time for. Nor will Siri or Alexa ever answer that question." That is exactly what this reimagined calendar would do.
The nature of technology is evolution — from rudimentary tools to advanced AI that predicts and guides our every move. As we stand on the brink of this new horizon, we are not just observing a mere update to our scheduling tools. Instead, we are witnessing the birth of a comprehensive life assistant, one that integrates our past, present, and future, giving us not just reminders, but also meaningful insights. The reimagined calendar does not merely track time, it understands it, appreciates its nuances, and empowers us to make the most of every moment. As we step into this brave new world, we are reminded that while time remains a constant, our tools to navigate it are bound only by the limits of our imagination.
I'd love to hear your take on this. Feel free to share your insights here.