Time Lost: Scene 2

Greek god time Kairos Francesco Salviati 1600s

Continuing from last time, beyond revolutionizing physics Smolin’s goal in Time Reborn is the recovery of our human sense of time. What physics tells us is that there is no distinction between past, present and future. This, of course, collides with our natural sense of time- how we are prone to see ourselves as beings in time. For us, the past is what is behind us, over with, as mute to our desire to change it or have it to live over again as the sheer characteristics of existence such as space, light, energy. The present is where we are right now the location of our body and consciousness a fact that shoves us with it’s immediacy. A fire in your home at this moment is not a recalled or dreamed of thing, but something to be responded to without delay or perhaps without time for any sort of reflection at all. The future is the not yet a blank canvas whose possibilities are as open and potentially living as the past is mute and dead. It is this relationship to time which Smolin hopes to restore not so much because he believes the view of time held by physics has helped rob us of the past or even diminished, as Einstein feared, the present, but because of its impact on our hopes for the future. For, if the future is as real as the present and we are left without the ability to change it- we have lost any sense of our own agency in time.

Yet, one might ask whether what Smolin is describing is indeed what has happened in terms of our relationship to time? It seems less the case that what we are experiencing is a lost sense of our own agency regarding the future due to a kind of cultural osmosis of deterministic ideas found in physics, or even a kind of diminished valuation of the past and the present as a result of our longing for the eternal timelessness of nature’s laws, than a fundamental change in our relationship to time that has condensed both the past and the future into the narrow slice of time we call the present. To the extent that physics is at all responsible, this change might merely be an outgrowth of digital technologies whose underlying assumptions are those of the, to coin a phrase, time-blindness of physics but not much more than that.

Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now explores our changing relationship with time not from the perspective of physics, but from that of media, culture and human psychology. He gives us an on the ground view of changes Smolin looks at from an Archimedean Point. The title is an homage of sorts to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, and just like how Toffler sought to bring our attention to a new and disorienting change in our perception in the sense of a future- that was rushing at us faster than many of us could bare- Rushkoff brings into focus our new sense that both the future and the past have collapsed into a frenetic omnipresent right now.

There are five ways Rushkoff thinks present shock is being experienced and responded to. To begin, we are in an era in which he thinks narrative has collapsed. For as long as we have had the power of speech we have corralled time into linear stories with a  beginning, middle and ending. More often than not these stories contained some lesson. They were not merely forms of entertainment or launching points for reflection but contained some guidance as to how we should act in a given circumstance, which, of course, differed by culture, but almost all stories were in effect small oversimplified models of real life.

From its beginnings to the late 80’s early 90’s television seemed the perfect format for the simplest ways of communicating these lessons. It was our morality box. I am old enough to remember when even a show built upon a risque theme- such as Three’s Company framed every episode as a parable where Jack learns how to treat women like human beings. A goofy show like Happy Days was as loaded with parables as a religiously inspired series like Little House on the Prairie. This idea of TV as a morality box was on it’s way out by the late 1980’s, think Married With Children, The Simpson’s or Beavis and Butthead. Jerry Seinfeld was merely catching the wave when he created a hilarious show where the mantra was “No hugging, no learning”.

Rushkoff thinks this breakdown of narrative is so ubiquitous in the 2010’s that we no longer even notice it. Game of Thrones is just that – a game- without a clear linear narrative. Even hit shows like The Sopranos don’t end with a moral climax but in in a screen gone blank. Novelists loved by Davos elites such as Don DeLillo have caught on to the collapse of narrative as have movie makers such as Quentin Tarantino.

In some ways this collapse of narrative is a good thing in that during the heyday of television many of these narratives served as mere wrapping paper for social manipulation. Perhaps the most emotionally potent commercial ever “I’d like to Teach the World to Sing” was meant not to inspire policies that actually made the world a better place but to sell a soft-drink that over-consumed led to obesity and tooth loss.

We are too savvy for this type of messaging today, and Rushkoff thinks our self-protecting cynicism and virtual ADHD has lead producers of television to up the level of emotional punch to keep our eyes glued to the screen, which is probably how he would see the zombie craze with shows like The Walking Dead where the more bone crunching seemingly the better. When we aren’t busy watching scenes of soulless humanoids begin torn apart, we watch each other being teared apart, emotionally at least, in reality shows that again had their origin in the 80s with televised circuses like the Jerry Springer Show.

The medium Rushkoff thinks is best adapted to the decline of narrative are video games. Yes, they are more often than not violent, but they also seem tailor made for the kinds of autonomy and collaborative play that are the positive manifestations of our new presentism.

 Other ways in which present shock manifests itself are what Rushkoff calls “Digiphrenia”- the ability that we now have to be in more than one “place” at one time. I see this often when I take my daughters to the park. There’s always some parent who spends most of her time with her eyes glued to her phone. Perhaps one of the most incongruous images I have ever seen was a Saudi woman in a full black burka staring intently out of the eye slits at her smart phone oblivious to her son calling for her attention at the park swings. I wasn’t sure if I should feel sad for the boy or glad that a revolution in women’s right in Islamic world was obviously at hand.

Our freedom from the constraints of time has instead become a chain. Rushkoff believes we have blown it in terms of how we are using our digital technologies. Rather than using our ubiquitous connections to give us control over time, so, for instance, we can work when the time is right, we instead have placed ourselves constantly on call- a world only emergency service workers lived in before the digital age. Instead of being there in the moment we are constantly”pinged” by the world beyond to the diminishment of what is right there in front of us our child on the swing.

Yet another way Rushkoff thinks we suffer present shock is through what he calls “Overwinding”. This is our tendency to crush into a moment things which unfold over much longer periods of time. One perspective that comes up for criticism here is Stewart Brand’s conception of the “Long Now”. For over a decade, Brand has been trying pull us out of our habit of short-term thinking. His popular Long Now seminars which I view religiously are meant to be forums for the expression of the long view, and his 10,000 year clock a project to get us thinking outside of the frame of the news cycle or even centuries.

The problem Rushkoff sees with this is that such a long term view leaves us both morally paralyzed and suffering from time induced vertigo. Using his example, the disjunction between my choice to not take the extra time to throw a plastic bottle in the recycling bin and the fact that the plastic bottle will last for thousands of years is too great for the mind to process. The sense of responsibility and unintended consequences when dealing with such an expanded canvas of time leave one frozen before every decision. We are Overwinding when trying to judge our actions in light of millennia and for the vast majority of us this just doesn’t work as a guide to ethical and responsible behavior.

You don’t even need to get all metaphysical or socially conscious to find yourself suffering from Overwinding. You suffer from Overwinding when you try to condense anything that takes time to unfold into a much more condensed period of time. Like Woody Allen’s joke: “I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

 For Rushkoff we also suffer from yet another distortion in our relationship to time what he calls “Fractalnonia”- the attempt to make sense of the world entirely from the present moment. If Overwinding is the attempt to squish a large chunk of physicist Brian Green’s space-time loaf into an extremely narrow slice we call the “present”, Fractalnonia cuts off a thin slice in the “present” from the rest of the loaf and views everything captured in this slice as somehow connected. Akin to looking for the face of Jesus in your raisin bread.

Fractalnonia can be summed up in a phrase that is half acid-trip and half paranoid disorder- “everything = everything”. It is the search for patterns- fractals- where they may or may not exist. This something that may stem from the nature of modern media itself which puts the most incongruous events – insurgency in Syria next to Justin Bieber’s car accident next to a fall in the stock market almost daring us to engage in a game of “six degrees of separation” and connect them together.

The whole current cult of Big-Data emerges in part from our philosophy of Fractalnonia which tends to suggest that the solution to problems or understanding of the world is to be found by gathering and collecting more and more data points rather than telling stories or coming up with theories although Fractalnonia is built on a theory all its own.

It grows out of the burgeoning field of complex studies which holds that non-linear systems have many features in common. The economy is, in this view, sufficiently “like” an ecosystem so we can understand economies by understanding ecosystems. Terrorism is “like” a virus so we can learn how to contain terrorism by applying our understanding from containing viruses.  There is much to be gained in these theories, yet Rushkoff wants to warn us that these analogies are just that – analogies. By forgetting the differences between the things we are studying we are in real danger of confusing the map with the territory.

Those who take Fractalnonia too far, in the political realm, are likely to fall prey to full blown conspiracy theories an aspect of the last of  Rushkoff ‘s manifestations of present shock the belief and need for final endings- good or bad- what Rushkoff calls      Apocalypto.

People who suffer Apocalypto are desperate for an ending. What William James declared to be the perspective on the world held by infants “the blooming, buzzing, confusion” is now the experience of even the adults in the room. This leaves some of us desperate for a climax an end to history that would make sense of the whole damned thing. Modern media pours fuel on the fire of this sensibility spewing out story after story in a way that to some of us makes it appear we are on the verge of collapse or some sort of cosmic tipping point.

Apocalypto is a bi-polar mentality embracing both extreme pessimists and extreme optimists. The survivalist stocked up and “safe” in his cabin from what he believes to be the imminent collapse of the US government belongs to the same tribe as thesingularitarian who believes we are racing towards sentient AI, uploading, and human immortality not within the span of centuries but mere decades in the future.

These then are the cognitive problems that are found in the state of present shock but what about the solutions? Unlike most books that take such a critical view on the present, Rushkoff actually offers several practical solutions to deal with our new and often disorienting sense of time. Most important is the realization that the way we are using technology to exist in time isn’t so much a product of the technology itself as the way we have chosen to use it. It was we or our employers) who chose to use the omnipresent connectedness of the Internet and mobile technologies to never leave the office rather than allowing us to escape the time and spacial constraints of being tied to a desk from 9:00-5:00. This is ultimately not just bad for employees- physically and psychologically but for employers as well. Both employers and employees need to realize that the kinds of burnout brought on by never being able to put distance between ourselves and our job ends up undermining the very productivity and creativity that lie at the root of the profits and shareholder value modern businesses pursue.

We also need to learn to turn our gadgets off to stop staring into screens when there is another person’s eyes in front of us. The imposition of screenless times in our homes, a digital sabbath, is one quite easy way to assert our sovereignty over our technology in the name of our humanity.

Rushkoff has also embraced a version of chronobiology which asserts that human beings have natural rhythms many of them tied to solar and lunar activity. The idea here is that we often use our technology to transcend those limits, leading to our need for both stimulants and sedatives because both our industrial age and digital systems- unlike the agricultural and hunter-gathering systems that preceded them are disconnected from the solar and lunar cycles that continue to play out in our own bodies. Yet, perhaps we should instead use technology to better align ourselves with these bio-clocks- digital feedback and tracking reopening a window on our natural cycles that had been closed for us with the onset of the industrial age and electric lighting.

In addition, he wants us to be conscious of different ways to understand time and how things we encounter in our daily life can best be approached by understanding how they should be seen in terms of time. A book is different than email which is different from Twitter. A true book is an extended argument or picture that, as Woody Allen knew, cannot be reduced to snippets. The best books are also always timeless in that the worldview they unveil says something to us and still somehow seems relevant even when viewed from centuries after they were first written.

Email, or at least most of it, is not timeless in this sense. It has a shelf-life, which depending on the project can be read and are relevant over stretches of time- days, weeks, months. Email can also be caught up with. Most email doesn’t lose its relevance hours or even days after it was written.

Twitter, on the other hand, is most often about the right now a kind of echo chamber for own perspective on the goings on of the moment. Trying catch up with Twitter messages is something Rushkoff compares to reading yesterday’s stock prices. What’s the point the moment has already passed?  And besides there are so many things going on in one moment and being commented on that no person could ever keep up

There is also another sense of time Rushkoff wants to remind us about. The Greeks had two gods for time Chronos and Kairos. We most often think of time in terms of the countings of Chronos as in “what time is it?”, but Karios offers us another way to think about time as in the right or wrong moment. “Is it the right time for me to leave my job?”, “Marry?” “Have children?” It is in these moments when we are most likely to see time from our own personal wide angle lense seeing how a decision to go this way or that fits into the sense of our past, present and imagined future taken as a whole. This is the most human manifestation of time distinct from the biological cycles we share with our fellow animals of the linear tick and tocks of our machines.

Still if Rushkoff gives us a clear eyed view of the present one might still wonder about the future, or relatedly because it is one of the primary ways outside of technology that we shape the time ahead of us beyond the personal level what about the political? Rushkoff  seems to think the future disappeared with the coming of the millenium. What had been a kind of omnipresent feeling of anticipation about “the year 2000” was replaced by the realization that the future wasn’t ahead of us- we are living in it. Visions of new worlds to be built in the future and the grand narratives that went with them were in his view a thing of the past. Without such goals the point of government became a vacuum which was filled by one movement Rushkoff finds illegitimate and another that he thinks has found the correct way to approach politics in the age of present shock.

He reproaches the Tea Party for its conclusion that governance is nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul a view of government not as a means of social investment in the future but as an extortion racket. The movement that represents the best response in a world of present shock is Occupy. The very lack of goals of the movement he sees as part of its strength. Occupy isn’t about building some world in the future but about having a political conversation where everyone is included right now.

Rushkoff’s meaning when he declared the end of the future dovetailed into some thoughts I had been having about the current state of the endeavor that deals with the future, namely science-fiction, for it seemed to me that science-fiction was having some trouble in its traditional role of pulling us towards a certain version of the future. Both Rushkoff’s ideas regarding our sense of the future and my own were clarified for me upon encountering a lecture by the science-fiction novelists Kim Stanley Robinson.

Robinson characterized our current orientation to the future by what he called “futurity”. What has happened is that, on some fronts at least, the future has lost it’s ability to surprise. If tomorrow it was reported that we heard a signal from Alpha Centauri or had cloned a human being or invented an AI that passed the Turing Test few of us would be shocked in the way Toffler warned us of in Future Shock.

He thinks the impact of science and technology has become so ubiquitous and profound that any writer of realistic fiction will have to address questions posed by science and technology in a way only science-fiction writers did before. I heartedly agree with him here and would add that any serious philosopher or political and social thinker needs to address the questions posed by science and technology as well. Living at this particular juncture of history it is what has drawn me to these issues as well.

Robinson also makes the case that much of what we take to be descriptions of the future in science-fiction today is actually a version of fantasy. One can tell fantasy fiction from hard science-fiction by the fact that fantasy fiction takes what are significant or even from our perspective impossible technological hurdles and waves them away with a flick of the magicwand. In this view stories that feature interstellar travel or sentient AI or human immortality (as opposed to vastly increased longevity) are versions of fantasy fiction.

Robinson’s fiction tends to focus on the intermediate human future – several centuries into the future and is technologically conservative and gradualists. There are no wormholes that allow us to escape the constraints of the speed of light and the vast distances of interstellar space. Problems that we today find to be hard are indeed hard- our understanding and their solutions and taking likely to take decades or even centuries to unfold. Machine sentience arrives slowly over time, human longevity increases to centuries and then millenia with true immortality still as fantastical as in any religious daydream.

In focusing on this intermediate future Robinson fills a gap I found both in Rushkoff’s and my own thinking. The time frame of the Long Now, not to mention anything longer, is indeed disorienting. This does not mean, however, that the future is not our responsibility to shape. Robinson gives us some clues as to what this responsibility means and the kinds of timeframes we need to attend to in his recent novel 2312 to which I will turn next…

Post-script 1/18/14:

In an essay “How Technology killed the future”,  Rushkoff concludes:

Gone are the days when America could plant a flag on the moon and declare the space race won. Modern obstacles are more often chronic ones to be managed and mitigated over time. Greenhouse emissions, child hunger, mutating bacteria, drug abuse and even terrorism are not wars one wins.

 The age of present shock is, it seems, forcing Americans to realize that our journey is less about reaching a conclusion than it is about sustaining ourselves for as long as possible. Our politics may come to have less to do with triumph than endurance—a shift in perspective that, while born out of an obsession with the present, wouldn’t be so bad for the future.


4 comments on “Time Lost: Scene 2

  1. […] café de esta mañana lo he compartido con el post que lleva por título Time Lost, Tiempo Perdido, que os recomiendo vivamente. Leyéndolo me ha llamado la atención lo que ellos […]

  2. […] something exquisite peeking at us from the ceiling- quite the opposite. Though I might be guilty of overwinding,  it was a second or two 400 million years or perhaps one might say 13 billion years in the […]

  3. […] This cruel pixelization of human beings (and animals) can strike us in seemingly innocent forms as well, as the media critic Douglas Rushkoff wrote of our infatuation with reality TV in his Present Shock : […]

  4. […] of the past. I say unfortunately because I was such a big fan of Rushkoff’s prior book Present Shock and was therefore looking forward to some genuinely novel solutions to our current institutional […]

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