Sunday, January 29, 2006

Building cachet by association


Sunday January 29, 2006

cachet by association
* With sleek elevations and drama to spare, out-of-the-box modernism manifests itself on a massive scale. But when a prominent work becomes a backdrop for blouses or set decoration for soda, does commerce dishonor art or can both come out ahead?

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

LONG before Skyy Vodka put the finishing touches on their new ultra-premium elixir, Chad Farmer was jotting notes and planning studies to figure out how exactly to market the stuff. "We look at culture," says Farmer, president and executive director of the Carlsbad-based ad agency, Lambesis. "We look at what's happening in industry, what consumers are doing, we look at the rational and emotional reasons for why people drink vodka." Farmer and his team chose five potential advertising themes -- exotic; aphrodisiac; old world, old stills; clinical; and high design -- and spent months researching, whittling the list to one.

"We decided on high design," Farmer says, "because it's the biggest cultural opportunity right now. The masses are starting to have a higher aesthetic; just look at Philippe Starck at Target. Now that the masses are buying TVs and electronics not because of picture quality but because of high design, our choice becomes very obvious."

Skyy Vodka, meet Walt Disney Concert Hall. Frank Gehry's slopes of polished steel, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, play a primary role in the marketing campaign for Skyy 90, to be unfurled in coming months across all variety of media. "We searched around the world for instant classic symbols of modern design," Farmer says. "Disney Hall is one of the most iconic symbols of modernism."

It has also become one of the more prominent images used in advertising, along with other local buildings such as the District 7 headquarters for the California Department of Transportation, the Pacific Design Center, the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "High-end architecture is getting hotter," says Ron Smothermon, a Newport Beach ad producer. "More and more modernistic, high-end architecture is flowing through the advertising industry." A wide swath of companies has filmed and photographed Disney Hall for ads since the building opened in 2003, including Microsoft, Sony, Supercuts, Macy's, Vidal Sassoon, Nokia, M&M's, Bass Ale, Oral B and many automobile brands.

Architects are generally flattered by the attention, says James S. Russell, editor at large for Architectural Record. "Buildings exist in a public space, and if they get used as the backdrop for ads, if anything, the architects are tickled," he says. But there are those who cringe when they see temples of modern design used to hock cars and toothbrushes, who bemoan the unchecked commercialization of their craft.

Some of the executives and producers behind these ads, such as Skyy 90's Farmer, are scrupulously aware of the architecture they feature; each shot is meant to convey specific social, aesthetic and economic values and to associate them with the brand. In these productions, the architecture is usually clearly recognizable, rising in full form as a backdrop to poured vodka or a gleaming luxury sedan. "High architecture -- like Gothic cathedrals, English accents and classical music -- is shorthand for beauty, sophistication and aspiration, for confidant urbanity," says Bob Garfield, ad critic for Advertising Age magazine. "It can be useful to sell credit cards, insurance and high-ticket items, especially for well-heeled people who imagine themselves worthy."

Other executives and producers are less interested in borrowing architectural prestige than in using blurred shots of walls and ceilings and architectural details to subtly compliment foreground products. In this case, buildings are often barely recognizable. "I loved the lines at Disney Hall," says Deborah White, senior art director at Macy's, who arrived there to shoot a section of the store's fall 2005 catalog. "The lines were just perfect. Our trend of clothing was burnt-out velvets, and beading and so forth. Disney Hall lent itself to the whole look -- sleek and elegant."


The phenomenon goes public

JUST down the hill from Disney Hall, the ultra-modern Caltrans building is another mecca for advertisers, receiving 36 commercial film and photo shoot requests in 2005, more than any other state-owned building in California. Last year it played host to Nintendo, Sony, MasterCard, Clairol, Mitsubishi, Samsung and others. Which didn't surprise its architect in the least.

"We could anticipate that this would take place," says Thom Mayne, who unveiled the massive Space Age project in 2004. "We had film crews in the building before it was even occupied.... I think this reflects society's continued interest in the present, in something contemporary. Architecture tends to be put under forces that are fairly conservative, and advertising has a different set of rules. It's much more open and willing to explore.... This is another way that buildings are absorbed by the public; it's not a problem -- it's not even a good or a bad thing. It just is, and should be."

Gehry tends to agree. "I guess in some way I find it flattering," he wrote in an e-mail. "And I don't really have a problem with Disney Hall being used in advertising if it benefits the [Philharmonic] in some way, which I guess it does." Indeed, site fees collected by Disney Hall and the neighboring Music Center bring in about $150,000 per year.

But other architects and aficionados of the craft find its use in advertising troubling. After all, they say, there's a thin line between appreciation and appropriation. Didn't at least some people cringe when a deceased Fred Astaire danced onto TV screens with a Dirt Devil-brand vacuum cleaner? When Mercedes-Benz played Janis Joplin's soulful treatise on materialism, "Mercedes Benz," as the soundtrack to a commercial? Why should great architecture, when used for commercial purposes, not be included in that same discussion?

"It's pretty obvious that there's a desperate hunt for really strong iconographic imagery that supports whatever's being sold," says Jeffrey Scherer, a Minneapolis-based architect who designed the Rancho Mirage Public Library, unveiled this month. "As buildings get more public currency, if [the advertising] isn't done right, it devalues that currency. Architecture should be understood in a reflective way, but American culture is not about reflection, it's about persuasion, about trying to grab attention in a way that quickly creates value through association."

In France, Scherer notes, it's illegal to photograph architecture for commercial use without first obtaining permission and paying a royalty to the copyright holder. "That sends the signal to people that three-dimensional physical objects that are occupied have as much artistic value as two-dimensional, plain-old art," Scherer says. "It's important to have some way of acknowledging, publicly, through legal means, that this is not throwaway, that it has inherent value." In the U.S., art and music receive broad copyright protection -- while buildings are protected only in that architects cannot duplicate structures or architectural plans without permission. When advertisers decide to use Disney Hall for an ad but don't want to pony up a site fee, they can and often do film from the parking lot across the street.

The Caltrans building draws into broad relief the distinction between art and architecture. The structure itself is Mayne's creation -- but neon strips adorning its facade are actually an installation art piece titled "Motordom" by New York artist Keith Sonnier. Art and architecture intertwine, and advertisers seek out the totality.

"The long, colored neon tubes on the building, they have a lot of energy, kinetic energy," says David Tanimoto, vice president and group creative director for Santa Monica-based ad agency Rubin Postaer and Associates, which handles marketing for Honda. Tanimoto opted to photograph the 2006 Accord in front of the Caltrans building. "We thought that the juxtaposition of that energy, with a static car, expressed speed and excitement and reflects the car's aerodynamics as well," he says.

While Mayne doesn't mind his work appearing in commercials, Sonnier says, "My plumes are up about that. I've gotten tons of calls now, 'I saw your work on television!'.... I have a preference that it not be used at all unless I'm contacted first.... I just want to be paid like everybody else in this country.... The downside is that your work could be used in the wrong context; maybe they'd be using the ad to sell Agent Orange or something."


Appropriateness enters the picture

ADVERTISEMENTS for Agent Orange have yet to be filmed at the Caltrans building -- but technically they could be. Anyone who makes a filming request is allowed on the property, once logistical concerns are worked out, says Gamal Kostandy, the agency's statewide filming coordinator. That's not the case at Disney Hall, where applicants are screened more carefully. "We're definitely concerned about what it is they're going to be shooting," says Chris Christel, the production director at the Music Center who oversees filming there and at Disney Hall. "Frankly, it's only become an issue on very rare occasions. We're hesitant to allow anything that puts the building forward as something that's conducive to skateboarding.... The stainless steel really doesn't like that."

The kids at Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona are certainly interested in architecture -- or at least in advertisements that feature architecture. McDonald's. Nissan. Volkswagen. These companies and others have shot ad footage on the Pomona campus, designed by none other than Mayne; and when the ads debut, the student body and faculty are all aflutter.

"The students love it," says principal Monica Principe. "They think it's very prestigious, they brag about it all the time. They're teenagers, they like the attention." It's good and bad, she says. "We are a high school, and we're in the kid business. Our main focus is education and academics. There are a lot of interruptions, a lot of phone calls, people wanting to walk around [campus] to film it, location scouts coming in, and we're trying to balance that with education. At times, that becomes cumbersome, but we work through it, because we're proud of it."

And then there's the money. All location fees feed into the school district coffer -- which opens up a new dimension to architecture that hasn't been much considered, Mayne says. "It's an interesting side effect, the building actually producing funds that go back to students. I like the politics of that. It lends the building a secondary value that no one thinks about."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

BlackBerry outage? Oh, the horror


Wednesday January 25, 2006

BlackBerry outage? Oh, the horror

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg will not stay at a certain upscale New York hotel, no matter what you say to persuade him otherwise. He remembers vividly the moment when, traveling on business, he realized that his BlackBerry didn't get service in the hotel. That's OK, thought Rosenberg, chairman of Los Angeles-based Platinum Studios -- he unsheathed a second BlackBerry, with a different cellular carrier, which he keeps on his belt for emergencies like this one.

It didn't work either.

"I walked through the halls holding both of them, looking for [reception] bars," he remembers. "Neither of them worked anywhere in the hotel." Rosenberg, who has charted Los Angeles freeways and byways, restaurants and movie theaters in terms of which BlackBerry works best where, buys the devices for all his employees and says that his organization relies heavily on their e-mail and scheduling functions. If somebody doesn't want a BlackBerry, they're in the wrong company, he says. "When I first give an employee the BlackBerry, some people find it annoying. But then they get addicted."

Now Rosenberg and about 4.3 million others are grappling with the possibility of going through "CrackBerry" withdrawal en masse. Research in Motion, which manufactures BlackBerry devices, is being threatened with an injunction stemming from a patent dispute, and on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. RIM says it has a plan to continue service even if forced to stop using the current technology, but is sketchy on details. And among BlackBerry aficionados and addicts, tension is high.

Elsewhere, BlackBerry foes celebrate. At the technology news website, users write: "Shouldn't this read: 'CRACK-Berry Shutdown ordered, Millions of Drivers Rejoice??" and "They make people look self-important and busy" and "Die Blackberry! Die!"

There's a saying: Toss a Tinseltown player, and you'll hit a BlackBerry. Or there should be. And at the Marriott Hotel in Park City, Utah, headquarters for the Sundance Film Festival, news about the possible BlackBerry outage came as a slap. Producer Anastasia King held her BlackBerry in her lap, waiting for a print of her film -- a look at black disenfranchisement in recent elections -- to arrive for its Sundance premiere. Since buying the device nine months ago, "it has really improved my work flow so that I can be mobile," she said. The title of her film is an apt metaphor for the BlackBerry crisis: "American Blackout."

Nearby, Sydney Levine wore her BlackBerry on a dainty silver chain around her neck. She looked stricken at the idea of losing service. "We are a worldwide company," said Levine, president of Filmfinders, a Sundance festival sponsor. "We get hundreds of e-mails a day. If we had to wait for computers to access our e-mail, I don't know how I'd get my work done."

Many BlackBerry users will tell you: This is life or death. In a few cases, they're not kidding. At MedStar Health, a nonprofit that runs seven hospitals in Baltimore and Washington, about 460 executives and managers use BlackBerrys to keep in touch, says Sameer Bade, assistant vice president. "During some recent communication outages, BlackBerrys were the only way we could communicate with critical service employees," Bade says, and warns that uninterrupted communication is vital to hospitals in the nation's capital.

But there was a time before BlackBerrys, wasn't there? And doctors still healed the sick; movies still came out. These were simpler, more human times, say BlackBerry critics, many of them the spouses or children of vehement BlackBerry enthusiasts. Pamela Rosenberg actually cheered when she saw on the news that RIM was in trouble -- to the chagrin of her husband, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, he of the dual BlackBerrys.

"We can't have a nice dinner or go to a movie without him getting e-mails," says Pamela Rosenberg. "It's constant, all day and all night, in the middle of a conversation." Rosenberg rues the day she made her husband promise to get rid of the laptop he once toted everywhere; that was the day he purchased a BlackBerry. "At least with the laptop he couldn't hide very far. Now I find him hiding out with it in the dressing room closets. I have to take my hand and put it over the BlackBerry if I want to get his attention."

In his own defense ... well, actually, Scott Rosenberg mounts no defense. Guilty as charged. "We were on a family vacation once," he says, "and everybody was having dinner. I excused myself to go to the restroom, but I didn't use the facilities. I just went in there and wrote on my BlackBerry for half an hour. Then I came back to the table and said I had a stomachache. My uncle looked at me and whispered: 'BlackBerry.' "

This "BlackBerry divide" exists between people at the highest levels of government -- and their children. Says Debra Wong Yang, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California: "My daughter hates my BlackBerry. She thinks it's too intrusive into our life. But I'm too much of an addict to notice. She has taken it upon herself to hide it from me. I've gone on major searches looking for it. It's funny now, but then it wasn't so funny." Most colleagues are too polite to josh her, says Yang, but her 12-year-old just won't quit. "She's gotten more vociferous since she's gotten older, more articulate. Once she asked me, 'Mom, when you die, do you want me to put the BlackBerry in there with you?' I said, 'Only if I can get a signal.' "

Ignored children and spouses, however, ought not celebrate yet, even if they do have a U.S. attorney's daughter on their side. If BlackBerrys go blank, the world will be still for a moment. Traffic will screech to a halt. Songbirds will sing. And then, "I would be in the store immediately, replacing it with some kind of device that would allow me to communicate that way again," says Scott Pansky, BlackBerry addict and general manager of the L.A. publicity firm Allison & Partners. Sorry, kids.

There is a giddy schadenfreude that pervades the rest of the cellphone industry. "Wireless e-mail was ushered in by BlackBerry," says Rip Gerber, chief marketing officer at Intellisync, which bills itself as the second-largest provider of wireless e-mail after BlackBerry. "It was a great first act, but the show goes on. The audience has matured and wants much, much more. Thank you BlackBerry, the market will take it from here." Others who stand to benefit include Palm Inc., whose line of Treo smart phones is a popular alternative to BlackBerry, and new offerings from Nokia and Motorola.

Soap opera intrigue aside, legal experts say RIM simply has too much invested to let service stop; One way or another, they say, BlackBerrys will remain. (Internet gambling site is giving 2-1 odds that BlackBerry will be shut down in the next three months.) But there is something intriguing about the possibility of technology reversing its forward march. We have never held technology in our hands and loved it and hated it and watched it disappear. There should really be some sort of gizmo to help us weather these feelings we're having. RIM? Anyone? Anyone?!

Times staff writer Robin Abcarian contributed to this report from Park City, Utah. Staff writer Martin Miller also contributed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Hey, what about that drink?


Wednesday January 18, 2006

Hey, what about that drink?
* George Clooney and others shimmy through the sea of stars at post-ceremony galas to wax philosophical about movie trends, pose, dance, and -- oh yeah -- grab a glass of something wet.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

If you're George Clooney, it takes almost an hour to make your way from the red carpet to the bar. Wearing his tux unbuttoned at the neck and holding the Golden Globe statuette he picked up earlier in the evening Monday for his performance in "Syriana," Clooney makes his way past the hordes of press and the fans -- but can't seem to get a vodka soda. It's a curse, having this many friends.

"I just need some alcohol," he says, and starts a dash further into the In Style-Warner Bros. party off the lobby at the Beverly Hilton, but Charlize Theron does an intercept and ties him into a hug. Nearby, Clooney's publicist muses, "I know a lot of people. But he knows even more."

There's a theme to conversation this year at the Golden Globes galas, most of them held in the Hilton after the ceremony, and Clooney says it well: "My theory is that if we can raise questions about our movies, we succeed. It's happening in society at the same time that it's happening in movies: People sit around the table, and for the first time since Watergate, they are asking questions about politics." After a ceremony feting movies that challenge the audience socially and politically -- "Brokeback Mountain," "Transamerica," "Good Night, and Good Luck" -- tipsy stars preach to the gathered choir: The message matters.

Chocolate also matters and, as is the norm at these shindigs, there's plenty of it. In Style has arranged a Godiva lounge/museum replete with truffle sculptures, wall coverings and a chocolate martini bar, and Jeff Daniels is one of the first arrivals to choose a truffle from a silver plate. He eats it in a corner, by himself, looking sad. "I live in Michigan," says Daniels, who was nominated for his role in "The Squid and the Whale" but lost to Joaquin Phoenix. "Where I live, it's mostly a 'King Kong' town, people rarely go to see an indie. But they went to see 'Squid' because I was in it, and they came out just rocked. People forget that they can see a movie and it will stick with them for 10 days."

And here comes the ubiquitous Clooney, patting Daniels on the chest and grinning. No drink yet.

Inside the main tent, a cover band blasts a mixture of classic rock, grunge, funk. Backlit blue walls with splotches of red give the space a psychedelic flavor. And Paris Hilton, as much a party mainstay as open bars and massive platters of shrimp, deserves to win some kind of award for her party acrobatics. At one point she is gabbing on her cellphone, typing on a Sidekick, munching a lamb chop and posing for pictures. You figure out the mechanics.

Natalie Portman walks by mumbling "chocolate," reaches in only to discover it's a lamb chop and is sorely disappointed.

Jamie Foxx clearly doesn't trust the paparazzi to do him justice; he totes his own camera -- a credit card-sized digital gizmo, decorated with what looks like diamonds -- and he wants his picture taken with all passersby. Holding court on a low couch, wearing sunglasses, he snaps photos with four women. It takes a beckoning Eva Longoria to raise him to his feet; and then Foxx wants a photo with her.

A few feet away, an ebullient Sandra Oh from "Grey's Anatomy" stares disbelievingly at her Golden Globe. "I started in this business 20 years ago," she says. "My sister is here, my friends are here. Some awards come and go, but this one.... I don't see how you can fathom winning." Kevin Spacey walks by with a posse of men in black tie, all laughing uproariously.

And Jon Voight, ever the party philosopher, takes up where Clooney left off. "Every film says something. Sometimes there's just more to say than at other times. People are making political films. But I'll tell you, just because a film's political doesn't mean I agree with it."

Each year on Golden Globes night, the Beverly Hilton transforms into a castle with a red carpet moat. Outside are the fawning masses; on the periphery, the media. But there are demarcations on the inside as well, as the hotel divides into assorted galas and a ticket to one doesn't mean a ticket to all.

The rooftop soiree held by Universal and Focus Features is second only in buzz and A-list attendees to the In Style-Warner Bros. bash. The decor is moody, with groups of paper lanterns hung in clear boxes like moored balloons. As the Globes end, celebrities pour in.

Keira Knightley and winner Rachel Weisz hunker down on an old sofa. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner embraces "Will & Grace's" Debra Messing. Eric Bana chats with Nathan Lane, and Universal President Ron Meyer swirls around the room with DreamWorks mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg (apparently the soured merger did not scotch their friendship).

Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't show, but his "Brokeback Mountain" co-stars Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams spend the evening cuddling and doing some fancy maneuvering to avoid scuffing her resplendent purple Givenchy frou-frou. Ziyi Zhang is accompanied everywhere by an older woman in a black suit, who carries her yards of lime green Armani organza in crowds; when the "Memoirs of the Geisha" star sits down to eat, her helper arrays the dress around her in swirls. "Match Point's" Emily Mortimer just hoists her black train around her knees as the night goes on to avoid getting tripped up by her clothes.

By 11, "Brokeback" director Ang Lee is tired and ready for sleep. "But it's a high-class problem," he admits. Those statuettes are heavy.

Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.

Monday, January 2, 2006

Going to Extreme Measures


Monday January 02, 2006

Going to Extreme Measures
* Even as digital countdowns and televised timers fill our waking hours, does anybody really know what time it is?

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

This story will take you approximately 11 minutes to finish. If you skip every other line, it will only take 5 1/2 .

Once measured by the arc of the sun through the sky, by the changing of the seasons, life these days is measured by an increasingly complex and exacting system of timers.

There it is, on the Caltrans signs dotting Southland freeways: "25 min to downtown LA." Walk signals count down until the light changes. In the digital sphere, time is sectioned into a series of laptop and cellphone battery meters and iPod song timers.

Radio stations alert listeners to time intervals, a la "more Howard Stern in two minutes" or "30 minutes of uninterrupted music." Al Gore's new network, Current TV, displays a progress bar at the bottom of the screen indicating the amount of time left in each segment.

On hold with the credit card company? The automated system informs you of your "estimated wait time." Soon you'll be able to track the specific moment of arrival of buses, trains and ferries, on your cellphone, via satellite.

Time takes on a prescient flavor; it orients the present moment and also reaches out into the future, taking hold of what will be.

The trend will balloon in coming years, experts say.

"It seems kind of obsessive," says Thomas Goetz, deputy editor of Wired magazine. "There has long been a niche of people who want to know how many seconds a song is going to last or how long a file will take to download. But it's interesting now that it's kind of being catapulted into the public sphere, that our governments, even, are now heeding the same kind of restlessness."

Proponents say the development inserts a modicum of sanity into a frazzled society. But critics claim that our focus on time as a commodity is the source of our frenzy rather than its salve, and that it leads to a kind of "time famine" and to all sorts of stress-related maladies.

"This is a public health problem of extraordinary dimensions, similar to smoke in public places," says Peter C. Whybrow, director of UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and author of the book "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough." "We've become the victims of our own technology."

We have an "old brain" inherited over many millenniums, Whybrow says, a brain that is conditioned to "measure time through the seasonal variation and the rituals that were tied to that, to the day-night cycle, all tied to the sun." By binding ourselves to a concept of time not anchored in nature, "we're perturbing the insides of our heads in a way that's quite disturbing and distressing."

The concept of "time famine" is increasingly entering into public and academic discourse. Seattle-based Take Back Your Time, an education and public policy nonprofit, aims to "challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and our relationships, our communities and our environment."

Timing devices aren't by definition a bad thing, says Take Back Your Time President John de Graaf, author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic." The problem is the extent to which we use them to schedule ourselves into a frenzy. "People are feeling increasingly like they've got to find a way to save every second," De Graaf says. "It used to be that when asked, 'How are you?' People would say, 'Fine.' Now they just say, 'Busy.' "

The result, says De Graaf, is a society that prides itself on massive productivity and a luxurious standard of living without realizing our devil's bargain. "If you want to judge standard of living on who has the most toys or stuff, then we win. But if you look at health, mental illness, strength of families, divorce, general equality or levels of education, we aren't No. 1. We pay a huge price for the phenomenal amount of overwork we do."

Huge price or no, some busy people say that an accelerated pace of life is a foregone conclusion, that we might as well harness timing technology to help us navigate.

"This is just my reality," says Samantha Slaven, a fashion publicist in Los Angeles. "I'm in a fast-paced business; I run my own company; I work in 15-minute increments all day long. I get impatient, and these devices just help you manage your expectations. My favorite is crossing the street in San Francisco, the signs that tell you how many seconds you have left until the light turns red. I'm so busy that the thrill of mystery just throws me off. I would like to know, for instance, approximately when my dog is going to have to go to the bathroom."

Love the timed life or hate it, both sides agree: Timing ourselves is addictive. "The progress bar has become like the crack of Current TV," says David Neuman, the network's president of programming. "It's the single most complimented thing on the whole network. There's a suspense to watching that progress bar move. It's like those freeway signs; in a universe that's characterized by so much chaos and disorder, maybe these little things give us a sense of psychological control."

You Have Approximately 7 Minutes of Reading Time Remaining

Controversy about time is as old as time-keeping itself, and a new furor seems to arise whenever time moves further from its natural moorings. Once time was simply the cycle of the sun and moon through the sky, the passage of seasons, the cropping up of wrinkles on skin. Then humans invented ways to quantify the pace of change, such as sundials and almanacs derived from natural cycles.

Even the earliest mechanical clocks were set according to the sun. But in the U.S. in the early 1800s, time began to move in fits and starts toward the disembodied breed we know today. And controversy bubbled forth.

Take this tale of two clocks in New Haven, Conn., in 1826, recounted by Michael O'Malley in "Keeping Watch: A History of American Time."

The town's dual timepieces were constantly out of sync. One was the Yale College clock; the other, a clock at the town hall. They would display the same time one moment and then fall out of sync with each other, forever engaged in a game of tag that left the townspeople befuddled and choosing sides.

The Yale clock kept "apparent time" -- according to the sun's arc, like a sundial -- whereas the town hall clock offered "mean time," an averaging out of the sun's daily variation. A lively debate sprang up in the Connecticut Journal, the local newspaper, over which clock was right. "It is said that the clock gives mean time. But what is mean time?" wrote one reader in a letter to the editor. "Mean time is not true time, nor is true time mean time. A public clock, which tells the truth four times in a year, is something very much like a public nuisance."

An anonymous reader disagreed, noting that the vast majority of watches and clocks tell mean time, so "surely the public at large ought not to have all their operations deranged, or their timepieces injured, by attempts to follow the variations of apparent time."

The Journal doesn't indicate how this issue was resolved locally, but we know from the thrust of history that mean time roundly trumped apparent time.

And time-keeping continued to evolve. In 1883, standard time was introduced by the railroads, breaking up the country into zones. In 1918, daylight saving was imposed, largely to conserve fuel during World War I -- but was repealed a year later. The people who most objected to daylight saving time, O'Malley notes, were those who lived at the boundaries of time zones, where daylight saving spelled an even greater distance between nature and the clock. (Daylight saving was governed by local jurisdictions until Congress passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966, which standardized daylight saving times.)

While factory hours and train schedules had once been adjusted to fit the light/dark pattern of each season, with daylight saving, time itself became adjustable.

Slowly, a new conception of time as synonymous with the machine integrated itself into the American psyche. Early science-fiction movies halt time by showing a clock with frozen hands, indicating that when the physical clock stops, time stops, while the rest of nature and humanity continue unabated. Time is no longer that mysterious passageway we enter at birth and exit at death; it is a commodity, external to us, that we can control.

You Have Approximately 4 Minutes of Reading Time Remaining

Displaying traffic information on electronic signs along Southern California freeways was a no-brainer, says California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jeanne Bonfilio. A network of about 15,000 censors was already in place along urban highways, so all it took was some rejiggering of wires and circuits, and in early August, commuting here became significantly less ambiguous.

Each of 14 signs displays the amount of time it will take to reach up to two destinations. Caltrans has plans to expand the program.

"We feel that it's putting traveler information in the hands of the motorist," Bonfilio says. "It will make the freeway systems more efficient."

But as with the two clocks in New Haven, not everybody has embraced the new model. By late October, nearly 300 motorists had evaluated the signs via the Caltrans website: 42% were either "very or somewhat satisfied" -- and 52% were "somewhat or very dissatisfied."

"I was headed to work and was able to estimate that I would be a little late," wrote one person. "I called ahead and informed my co-workers, since we had a meeting that morning. It's nice to have the information right on the spot!"

Others disagreed. "Estimated time does not help because I am already on the road," and "What's the difference between 25 or 45 minutes? Are there any alternatives once you are at that point?" and "Too much information!"

The Caltrans signs and other time-keeping devices are only the most rudimentary of an expanding array of products designed to impose data on the physical world, a snowballing trend that technologists call "augmented reality."

Just like TiVo enables us to time-shift the way we view television, augmented reality devices change the way we interact with physical space. "We get these moments in real life, walking down the sidewalk, going to a movie, where you can actually pull out select data information that otherwise in an analog world wouldn't be available to you," said Goetz of Wired magazine. "You might have a [global positioning system] built into your pair of glasses, say, so it looks like you're just looking through glasses but you're actually getting a data feed. And there will be different levels of filtering that you can select."

Augmented reality "is going to happen hugely," says Saul Griffith, a partner at Squid Labs in Emeryville, Calif. "Especially now that a lot of electronic devices are going mobile, information can follow you around."

Squid Labs is at work on a portable computer screen with a digital video camera on the reverse side. Hold it up to the world and it looks like a transparent pane of glass. But click on certain objects and view digital information transposed onto the world: the architectural plans of a standing building, say, or pipelines underneath the street. Solid surfaces become permeable; rules of physics no longer apply.

As time-keeping meshes with gadgetry that blurs the boundary between the digital and physical worlds, people stand at the edge of a "techno-utopian nightmare," says UCLA professor Whybrow. "Most people don't look at what the world is about anymore. How many people -- even the people who go to the beach -- watch the sunset? The things that make us happy are actually tied to the types of behaviors that we've had for millions of years. Having all sorts of information doesn't make us any happier."

"About 33% of the population say they feel anxious most of the time," Whybrow says. "This is driven by the fact that we've leapt the barriers of time and space. Light and dark don't mean anything anymore."

Squid Lab's Griffith contends that the difference between people who embrace augmented reality and those who abhor it is mostly generational. "Let's just say that for anyone under the age of 30, this isn't even a question to them. When I have children, they won't think it's a problem, and I'll be a grumpy old man saying I can't deal with it."

But what of those moments of utter boredom, sitting around on a sluggish Sunday afternoon, when there are no stimuli except an air conditioner's whir or some distant drip-drip-drip -- and you actually forget about time? Creativity experts suggest that the timelessness of boredom is the font from which inspiration emerges, and various spiritual traditions seek to invoke just this timeless sense of being.

"You like to have some moments where you can just take a breath," Goetz said. "But those kind of dead zones are being chipped away at, which makes me sad."

On a practical level, however, even the folks most concerned about an overly timed life find that, short of dropping off the grid entirely, escape is a difficult thing. O'Malley, who wrote the book on the history of time, remembers a moment in high school: "I had finished an assignment, and I was sitting there for the bell to ring. I was watching the clock, and couldn't go anywhere, and I started thinking: What gives the clock its authority?"

Since then, O'Malley has tried many strategies to extricate himself from time's grasp. "I didn't wear a watch. Then I carried a pocket watch, because it was more irritating to take out. But I find that I just can't live without it."