Before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness


In 1832 the English architect, Augustus Pugin, published his beautiful book Contrasts. The book was full of sketches in which Pugin juxtaposed the bland, utilitarian architecture of the 19th century with the intricate splendor of buildings built in medieval Europe.

By any honest reckoning Pugin was being unfair. The buildings he selected as symbols of modern banality not only weren’t the 19th century’s best, he tended to draw such structures from the most unflattering angles while engaging in an early form of airbrushing when it came to the flaws of of the Gothic structures he so loved.

Yet the public didn’t care about such artistic dissembling. Rather, Pugin ended up launching what became known as the Gothic Revival. A civilization undergoing the most stupendous technological and social transformation since the adoption of agriculture would dress itself up in the form of a religious culture that had passed from the scene centuries before with the Reformation.

I feel like we continue to engage in such nostalgic fantasies because a cartoon version of the past is so much easier to wrap our minds around than either the fractal present or the Stretch Armstrong of multiple, incompatible predictions regarding the future. Brexit is a version of nostalgia for a British Empire that will never return, just as Trump promises a return to American “greatness.” ISIS is the ultimate, terrifying, nostalgia trip and living in its “caliphate” must be a little like entering an Islamic version of colonial Williamsburg- all the more banal because the people living there think it is actually real.

There are many legitimate reasons to look to history, and I often do. The problem with our current fetish for the past is that we seem to be looking to it for whole social structures rather than as either a source of design and aesthetics or as object lesson in the eternal human capacity for both folly and resilience.

For someone left-of-center, such as myself, these right-wing and fundamentalist versions of nostalgia are easy targets. But the left, along with some of the more communitarian elements on the right, has its own version of such nostalgia. It is the way such longings for a return to the past have associated themselves with technology that have perhaps  prevented us from seeing it.

Unfortunately, Douglas Rushkoff’s recent book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus does precisely this. Hipster-like, it creates a vision of the future out of a nostalgaized version 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 crisis that avoided facile techno-solutionism. Instead, what I found was the latest version of Pugin, an attempt to leap over the dilemmas of the present through the imagining of a past that never was. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The title of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus stems from protests in 2013- 14 over Google’s private bus service which opposition believed was exacerbating San Francisco’s already crippling housing crisis and skyrocketing levels of inequality. Rushkoff’s task was to answer the question of how a company whose motto was “Don’t be Evil” could end up the target of such intense public derision. To answer this question he cast his net wide into the origins of capitalism itself.

Stories of a Fall always start out by painting a picture of the paradise we have left behind, and Rushkoff locates his in strangest of all places- medieval Europe during the Crusades although in a version that is shorn of all its religiosity, fanaticism and barbarism and put in terms all of us aspiring bobos  can understand.

For a happy couple of centuries before industrialism and the modern era the business landscape looked a little bit like Burning Man, the famous festival for digital artisans.

The bazaar was a peer-to-peer economy, something along the lines of e-bay or Etsy, where attention to human relationships and reputation promoted better business. (16)

The snake that ended up ruining this paradise were the nobility.

The people’s economy were growing while the aristocracy remained stagnant or even shrank. The nobles had no way to keep up. They looked at this new phenomenon of wealth and wanted some for themselves…. (17)

…industrialism was about restoring the power of those at the top by minimizing the value and price of human laborers. This became the embedded value system of industrialism, and we see it in every aspect of the commercial landscape, then and now.   (19)

We spent all of the 19th and the majority of the 20th century in the age of industrialization, but then in the 1970’s a whole set of digital innovations occurred which up until recently, Rushkoff argues, held out the prospect of a return to what he sees as the more humane and peer-to-peer features of the pre-capitalist world. Think of the openness of the Internet when it first emerged as a new form of public space, or the enormous success and power of purely volunteer platforms like Wikipedia.

Instead of a golden age of the peer-to-peer we got Uber. Rather than facilitate the horizontal distribution of wealth and power digital technologies have give rise to almost unprecedented degrees of inequality, surveillance and control. The reason Rushkoff thinks this has happened is that we’ve retained capitalism’s  compulsion to extract value from labor, whether that’s through platforms that strip employees of benefits and protections, or because all of us have become digital peasants forced to grow data for our server lords that reap the harvest.

The solution to our dilemma, Rushkoff posits, is for us to preserve and expand digital technologies’ inherent capacity for peer-to-peer sharing and action. Creating an economy in which human element is restored. What could anyone object to when it comes to that? Unfortunately, a lot.

Let’s start with Rushkoff’s version of history. The problem with the type Manichean explanation he offers where there were good guys- peasants and the middle classes- versus bad guys- the nobility-  is that they inevitably end up glossing over what turn out to be extremely important historical details. Sure, the nobility played an initial role as the catalyst for industrialization with the enclosure movement in England, but once the process got going the nobility were soon sidelined to the extent that an industrial juggernaut like the United States didn’t need a nobility for industrialization at all. Not only that, the industrial revolution would so undermine the nobility that today they barely exist except in a mummified form as a version of celebrity, however adorable. But rather than quibble over interpretations of the past, what about the more important question of the future?

It certainly seems to be the case that the young of both the left and the right seem to favor a version of society and state as decentralized as possible. I myself used to belong squarely in this camp. What convinced me otherwise was both the failure of the Occupy movement along with the broken promises of digital utopianism itself. This was the case I made in a recent article:“Algorithms versus Hive Minds: a premonition on democracy’s future. “ That piece makes an argument I’ve only grown more convinced of in light of what seems to be near continuous institutional collapse and the often frightening ways new forms of power are being manifested in the realms of both business and politics. We have yet to come to terms with these developments, and are very unlikely to find any way of coming to do so by looking to the Middle Ages.

It is also the case that arguments for a peer-to-peer society seem oblivious to the kinds of infrastructure and expertise that go into any modern civilization. It’s a blindness that can only be truly cured through travel to societies in a state of early or failed development, or failing that to experience the convulsion of one’s society as the British are now with Brexit.

Peer-to-peer networks are not going to provide our medical care, or build our roads and bridges, or even, despite leaps of the imagination, fight our wars. They will not prove to be the source of most scientific and technological breakthroughs, provide more than a minority of our manufactured goods, and probably could not, even if our diets were greatly reduced in quantity and variety, provide for our food.

Perhaps, peer-to-peer technologies and universal information will provide ways for non-experts to do things currently impossible for even the most dedicated groups of amateurs. Still, no one should assume all of these networks will be good citizens like Wikipedia, nor is it necessary that decisions and power in such groups will take an egalitarian form.

Rather, they’re just as likely to be composed of groups set up by elites with dark political agendas – think the Koch brothers- and run by some algorithm. Anyone thinking about the future of social organization should study both Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The very ad hoc nature of groups brought together by networking technology mean that power will likely become even more concentrated in those groups that cohere over longer periods of time: namely private and public bureaucracies such as multinational corporations or the NSA.

Perhaps the unprecedented period of economic and technological growth that occurred over the last few centuries is indeed coming to a close. And perhaps we’re adjusting to this end of growth in the way civilizations in the past have, by a systemic retrenchment back to the local.  Though it might be the case that such forms of retrenchment are much less about collapse than the sign of civilizations capacity for adaptation and resilience, and even if such ages of retreat are much less barbaric than we imagine, the transition to them is often shocking and painful. For before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness.


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.

Time Lost: Scene 1

Saturn Khronos

Of late, I’ve been thinking alot about time.  I thought this was just a reflection of age until I stumbled across two recent books that see the question of time and our perception of it to be essential to solving many of the problems that plague us from the level of the individual all the way up to those of our global civilization.

One of these books Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe is ostensibly a book about physics, but is just as much a diagnosis of contemporary economic and political ills. The other Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by media theorists and IEET Fellow Douglas Rushkoff is aimed primarily at social critique but ends up being what amounts to a philosophical guide book to help individuals steer themselves through a quite new (or perhaps quite old and forgotten) conception of time. A way of looking at time that is influencing everything from the media we consume to the way we organize our work and personal lives to the functioning of our economic and political systems.

Let me start with the physics.

In 1955 Michele Besso a man who was Albert Einstein’s closest and friend, whom he had known for many decades, died. Einstein who was himself old and approaching his own death wrote a letter of of condolence to the Besso family that is one of those rare instances of a great scientific mind applying his understanding to the kinds of real life events all of us eventually face as human beings. As translated by Michael Lockwood in his The Labyrinth of Time the letter read as follows:

He is now a little ahead of me in bidding this strange world farewell. That means nothing. For us devout physicists, the distinction between past, present and future likewise has no significance beyond that of an illusion, albeit a tenacious one. (52)

The claim that the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion may seem a strange way to offer condolence, but Einstein was providing a scientifically accurate answer to what is perhaps the most troubling aspects of death ,that, in Lockwood’s words “a living, breathing human being has been supplanted by a void.” (53)

For how much I respect Einstein’s Spinoza-like wisdom his suggestion of looking at time this way in response to death is not the most comforting. Not only can the lost loved one be assumed to still exist within a sliver of time, but so would the experience of being at his funeral, his suffering through disease, or any other painful and tragic moment in his life, although, of course, all of the banal and blissful moments as well. It’s life as Nietzsche’s “eternal return” without the return. Every moment of time captured and stuck there- a cosmic snapshot.

From our everyday perspective we no doubt have trouble with the disappearance of the distinction between past, present and future, but that is what the physics, responsible for so many of the miracles of the modern world, has consistently shown. Newton placed us in a deterministic universe in which the future is theoretically if not practically as predictable as the destination of a ball thrown through the air- a scientific version of Calvin’s predestination.

Einstein and 20th century physics did nothing to diminish this determinism, merely our powers to predict outcomes. Time lost the dignity it had even with Newton and became relativistic a perception based on the position of an observer. In Relativity, time “flows” at different rates based on the speed of a person in motion relative to another. A person speeding along at near light speed would have their local time grind to a near halt relative to those moving at slower speeds outside the spaceship. A short journey at near light speed away from the earth would have passengers returning thousands of years in the “future” of those who stayed behind.

In the hands of physicists the now became a slippery concept. Everything we experience is time delayed whether measured in milliseconds, or, like many of the  stars we look at in the night sky, millions of years in the past. What we call the present is always information in a state of delay. And making the frame bigger does not solve the problem. Moving from the perspective of the individual even to as large a perspective as that of the universe as a whole does nothing to restore the status of the now.

Brian Green gives us colorful imagery of this in his The Fabric of The Cosmos picturing spacetime as a giant loaf of bread. Defining the present means cutting a particular “slice”, but how do we decide how big or small to cut it? Indeed, for physicists following Einstein, the whole loaf from the beginning of time to the end of the universe appears to exist simultaneously.

Like the world given us by FaceBook, that embarrassing night at the prom that’s supposed to have disappeared into the past is still there for somebody, but not only that, so is everything in the future that from our particular slice of the spacetime loaf hasn’t even happened yet. To use another analogy it’s like the whole history of the universe has been DVR’d and what we call the “present” is just the particular segment on which we are stuck. If we weren’t ourselves on the DVR and had the ability to get “outside” and jump around the recording we’d find that scenes we label the “past” are still there as real as they ever were and perhaps more disturbingly scenes that are in our “future” are there as well.

Modern physics has thus been unable preserve the status of the present, the now. We quite rightly hold that the experience of the present is somehow more real than either the past or the future- the first of which we think gone and the second we believe has not occurred yet. But according to physics the present is just another snapshot- it’s just the pictures in the album or slideshow we have easiest access to.

Despite his turning to the disappearance of the distinction between the past, present and future as a way of consoling the Besso family, Einstein was deeply troubled by the potential effects of human beings losing the special status they had given the present. Greene reports how the philosopher Rudolf Carnap recounted of Einstein:

…that the problem of the now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation. (141)

This disappearance of the present and its related idea of the future as determined is precisely the view of time that Lee Smolin is out to overthrow in his Time Reborn. A well respected physicist and prolific author, Smolin attempts to make the case that not only are the ideas found in physics regarding time deeply flawed, but that time is the essential element in the order of the universe and key to our understanding of it.

Much about our knowledge of the universe needs to be rethought in order for time to be “reborn”. First off, the Laws of Nature which have long been held to be superior to time need to be dethroned, transformed into something that change through time. For Smolin, the Laws that we experience today may not be the same Laws tens of billions of years into the future or the same Laws that nature followed in the deep past.

Laws are replaced by Smolin’s “principle of precedence,” nature acts in a certain way over large spans of time because it has done so in the past and not because of some metaphysical principle written into the fabric of existence. As a consequence of the fact that nature follows the principle of precedence rather than Laws the future cannot be predetermined – novelty is an expected property of existence. Exchanging Laws for precedence allows Smolin to avoid questionable theories as to why our universe is ordered the way it is and most importantly provides a route through which his theory can be falsified.

Physicists’ combined ideas of the primacy of the Laws of Nature and the diminished status of time have in some ways boxed them into a corner. Why, after all, should the Laws of Nature be these particular Laws? And more surprising, why should they be Laws that seem specifically calibrated for intelligent life such as ourselves to emerge and ask questions about the universe that lead them to the discovery of the Laws?

There have been a number of answers to these questions besides “God did it”- there is the anthropic principle – the idea that the Laws are such as they are because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Then there is the idea of the multiverse in which not only every possible set of Laws, but every trajectory through spacetime is played out in an almost infinite number of alternate universes. Last, though Smolin doesn’t really give it any ink, there is the idea that we are living in a simulation that has been created by some intelligent species which might help explain the DVR aspect of time.

Smolin can dismiss all of these because in a universe where the laws change there’s no need to explain why the laws are such as they are now. Perhaps for the vast vast majority of the universe’s history conditions were not ripe for life. With one swoop the need for God, an anthropic principle, and the multiverse is done away with, and in a way that seems to gel more with common sense.

Smolin provides a system in which the laws (now with a lowercase l) can change – namely black holes which he thinks give rise to whole new universes with their own distinct laws. It is perhaps not surprising that we live in a universe ripe for life, if, as Smolin thinks, the kinds of stars prevalent in our universe are potent black hole producers. Life, in this view, would be the luckiest of cosmic coincidences. The more black holes a parent universe has, the more “baby universes” potentially like itself it makes and universes with many black holes are also conducive to life.

Unlike the anthropic principle or the multiverse- let alone the simulation hypothesis or God- Smolin’s theory can actually be empirically verified- giving predictions as to the frequency of black holes. Only time will tell if the science holds up, but Smolin is just as much on a political and philosophical quest as he is trying to overthrow the current scientific paradigm regarding time.

Smolin believes that the diminishment of time in the theories of physics has seeped into the larger society with pernicious effects. The idea that the future is predetermined, he thinks, has resulted in a steep decline of our sense of agency. The future has gone from something we create to being something we must simply endure a system that we are subject to that is largely outside of our control.

Smolin finds this viewpoint particularly dangerous given the challenges we face. We really do have the power to do something about climate change, we actually can exert control over our economic system and technology and do not have to merely suffer as we are pulled along by the trend lines.

Smolin is especially keen on how what he thinks is flawed physics, our fetish regarding the “Laws of Nature”, has thoroughly infected our theories regarding economics. Before the crash, the majority of economists foolishly embraced the “eternal truth” that the market trended towards equilibrium- a bastardized idea drawn from physics. Smolin does not believe in eternal truths and laws regarding anything and insists neither should we.

There is also a way in which Smolin’s tome, like Einstein’s letter to the Besso family or comments to Carnap, are driven by the personal. For a good part of his life Smolin, ensconced in the study of physics in a world that held the belief that time was an illusion. In a sense his fatherhood re-connected him with the human sense of time- the idea that not only did he have a meaningful past, but through his son had a meaningful future as well. The shear contingent miracle of a newborn freed his vision to see the essential openness of the future.

What Smolin most wants to do is recover Einstein’s lost now- the present physics had seemingly done away with. Yet, perhaps, what he has done most is provide a stepping stone back into the stream of time, restored something of the flow and interconnection between the past, present and future. For what our age is doing is less a matter of turning the present into an illusion than suffocating us in the singularity of an ever present now, leaving us beyond an event horizon where there is nothing behind or infront of us, but only on top. It took my reading of Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock to make that clear to me, and to it I will turn next time…