World Clock

Nick Montfort’s computer generated novel World Clock is inspired by Harry Mathews’s The Chronogram for 1998 and Stanisław Lem’s One Human Minute (1983). The latter is a fictitious review of a non-existent book of the same name that uses statistical data to describe everything that happens to human life on the planet within one minute. As the fictitious reviewer points out, this book could only be created with the help of computers, and in a supplementary chapter an electronic edition of the book is presented that can only be read using a computer and always contains the current data.

World Clock implements this idea: it consists of 1,440 paragraphs, divided into twenty-four chapters for each hour of the day with sixty paragraphs each, forming one hour. Each minute paragraph presents an incident by specifying a time of day, place, and character doing something. It starts with: “It is now exactly 05:00 in Samarkand. In some ramshackle dwelling a person who is called Gang, who is on the small side, reads an entirely made-up word on a box of breakfast cereal. He turns entirely around.” And it ends with: “It is now as it happens 23:59 in St. Helena. In some dim yet adequate edifice a person named Feng, who usually turns to look up to other people, reads some sort of exclamation on a small packet. He raises one eyebrow.”

In this repetitive way, Montfort’s novel “celebrates the industrial concept of time and certain types of vigorous banality which are shared by all people throughout the world” (blurb on the artist’s homepage), while creating an immense and dense web of interconnectedness and synchronicity. It thus redeems the description from Lem’s fictitious review that Montfort prefaced his novel with: “The originality of One Human Minute lies in its being not a statistical compilation of information about what has taken place, like an ordinary almanac, but rather synchronous with the human world, like a computer of the type that we say works in real time, a device tracking phenomena as they occur.”

World Clock was generated with 165 lines of Python code and written in about four hours on November 27, 2013 for the first National Novel Generation Month (NaNoGenMo). “The only external data source that is used in the generation process is the computer’s time zone database” (blurb on Harvard Book Store).

The book is distributed via the local independent Harvard Book Store (no direct relationship to the university of the same name) and printed on the Espresso Book Machine in the store. On the artist’s website, it is advertised by saying: “The 239-page paperback can be purchased for only $14.40, which is the low, low price of only one cent per minute.”

When the book was translated into Polish, Lem’s native language, Piotr Marecki decided not to translate the actual novel text, but to rewrite the program code in Polish and use it to regenerate the novel text.