Think Time is Speeding Up? Here’s How to Slow It!

seven stages in man's life

One of the weirder things about human being’s perception of time is that our subjective clocks are so off. A day spent in our dreary cubicles can seem to crawl like an Amazonian sloth, while our weekends pass by as fast as a chameleon’s tongue . Most dreadful of all, once we pass into middle age, time seems to transform itself from a lumbering steam train heaving us through clearly delineated seasons and years to a Japanese bullet unstoppably hurdling us towards death with decades passing us by in a blurr.

Wondering about time is a habit of the middle aged, as sure a sign of having passed the clock- blind golden age of youth as the proverbial convertible or Harley. If my soon to be 93 year old grandmother is any indication, the old, like the young, aren’t much taken aback by the speed of time’s passage. Instead, time seems to take on the viscosity of New England molasses, the days gently flowing down life’s drain.

Up until now, I didn’t think there might be any empirical evidence to back up such colloquial observations, just the anecdotes passed around the holiday dinner table like turkey stuffing and cranberry sauce: “Can you believe it’s almost Christmas again?”, “Where did the year go?” Lucky for me I now know what happened to time, or how I’ve been confuddled all this time into thinking something had happened to it. I know because I’ve read the psychologist and BBC science broadcaster, Claudia Hammond’s excellent little book on the psychology of time called: Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception.     

If you’ve ever asked yourself why time seems to crawl when you’re watching the clock and want it to go faster, or why time appears to speed up in the face of an event you’re dreading like a speech, this is the book for you. But Hammond’s Time Warped goes much deeper than that and exposes us to the reality of what it would be like if some of our common dreams about controlling time actually came true. If we could indeed have “perfect memory” or, as everyone keeps reminding us to, “live in the present”. In addition to all that, the nature of our ambiguous relationship with time she reveals raises interesting questions for those hoping we wrestle from nature a great deal more of it.

Hammond doesn’t really discuss the physics of time, or more clearly, the fact that much of modern physics views time as an illusion akin to past imaginary entities like the ether or the phlogiston.  The fact that something so essential to our human self-understanding is considered by the bedrock of human sciences to be a brain induced mirage has led to a rebellion of at least one prominent physicists, Lee Smolin, but he’s almost a lone voice in the quest to restore time. Nor is Hammond all that interested in the philosophy of time, its history or what time actually is. You won’t find here any detailed discussion of how to define time, it’s more like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “you know it when you see it.” Hammond is, though, on firm scientific ground discussing her main subject, the human perception of time, which, whatever it’s underlying reality or unreality, we find it nearly impossible to live without.

Evolution might have kept things simple and given the human brain just one clock, a steady Bigben of a thing to accurately mark the time. Instead, Hammond draws our attention to the fact that we seem to have multiple clocks within us all running at once.

We seem to be extremely good at gauging the passage of seconds or minutes without counting.  We also have a twenty four- hour clock that runs with the same length but independent of the alternating light and darkness of our spinning earth as Hammond shows was proven by Michel Stiffre who, in the name of science and youthful stupidity, (he was 23) braved two months in a dark cave meticulously recording his bodily rhythms. What Stiffre proved is that, sun or no sun, our bodies follow twenty-four hour cycles. The turning of the earth has bored its traces deep into us, which we fight against using the miracle of electric lights, and if the popularity of sleeping pills are any indication, so often lose.

For some of us, there seems to be an inbuilt ability and need to see longer stretches of time spatially in the form of ovals, circles, or zig-zags, rather than the linear timelines one sees in history books. One day, not long before I read Hammond’s book, I found myself scribbling thinking about how far into the future my great-grandchildren would live, should my now small daughters and their children ever have children of their own.

For whatever reason, I didn’t draw out the decades as blocks of a line but like a set of steps. I thought nothing of it until I read Time Warped and saw that this was a common way for people to picture decades, though many do so in three dimensions, rather than my paltry two. Some people also associate days with color- a kind of synesthesia that isn’t just playful imagination, but is often stable across an individual’s life.

There is no real way to talk about how human beings experience time without discussing memory. What I found mind-blowing about Time Warped was just how many of what we consider the flaws of our memory end up being ambiguities we would be better off not having resolved.

Take the fact that our memories are so fallible and incomplete. One would think that things would be so much better if our brains could record everything and have it for playback on a sort of neuronal blu- ray. For certain situations like criminal trials this would solve a whole host of problems, but elsewhere, we should watch what we wish for. As Hammond shows, there are people who can remember every piece of minutia, down to the socks they wore on a particular day, decades earlier, but a moment’s reflection leads to the conclusion that such natural born mnemonic prodigies fail to dominate creative fields, the sciences, or anything else, and such was the case long before we had Google to remember things for us.

There are people who believe that the path to ensuring they are not unraveled by the flow of time is to record and document everything about themselves and all of their experiences. Digital technology has doubtless made such a quest easier, but Hammond leads us to wonder whether or not the effort to record our every action and keystroke is quixotic. Who will actually take the time to look at all this stuff? How many times, she asks, have any of us sat down to watch our wedding video?

People obsessed with recording every detail of their lives are very likely motivated by the idea that it is their memories that make them who they are. Part of our deep fear of developing Alzheimer’s probably originates in this idea that the loss of our memories would constitute the loss of our self. Yet somehow the loss of memories (and the damage of Alzheimer’s runs much deeper than the loss of memories) does not seem to rob those who experience such losses of what other recognize as their long standing personality.

Strangely, our not too reliable memories, when combined with our ability to mentally time-travel into the past, Hammond believes, gives rise to our ability to imagine futures which are not. It allows us to mix and match different scenes from our memory to come up with whole new ones we anticipate will happen, or even ones that could never happen.

The idea that our imagination might owe its existence to our faulty memory put me in mind of the recent findings of Laurie Santos of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale. Santos has shown that human beings can be less not more rational than animals when it comes to certain tasks due to our proclivity for imitation. Monkeys will solve a puzzle by themselves and aren’t thrown off by other monkeys doing something different, whereas a human being will copy a wrong procedure done by another human being even when able to independently work the puzzle out. Santos speculates that such irrationality may give us the plasticity necessary to innovate even if much of this innovation tends not to work. It seems it is our flaws rather than our superiority that have so favored us above our animal kin.

What, though, of the big problem, the one we all face- the frightening speed through which we are running through our short lives? There is, it seems, some wisdom in the adage that the best way to approach time is in focusing on the present, even if you’re like me and watching another TED talk on the subject by Pico Iyer is enough to make you hurl. If the future is a realm of anxiety and the past a realm of regret, as long as one is not in pain, the present moment is a sort of refuge. Hammond believes that thinking about the future, even if we so often get it wrong by, for instance, thinking that our future self will have more time, money, or will-power, is the default mode of the brain.

Any meditative tradition worth its salt tries to free us from this future obsessed mode and connect us more fully with the present moment of our existence, our breath, its rhythms, the people we care about. There are ways we can achieve this focus on the present without mediation, but they often involve contemplation of our own impending death, which is why soldiers amid the suffering of war and the terminally ill or the very old like my Nanna can often unhitch themselves from the train pulling our thinking off to the future.

Focusing on the present is one way to not only slow the pace of time, but to infuse the short time we have here with the meaning it deserves. Knowing that my small children will outgrow my silliness is the best way I have found to appreciate their laughter now.

Present focus does not, however, solve the central paradox of time for the middle aged, namely, why it seems to move so much faster as we get older, for it is doubtful we were all that more capable of savoring the moment as teenagers than adults. Our commonsense explanation of time speeding up as we age typically has to do with proportionality as in “a year for a five year old is 1/5 of their life, but for a forty year old it is merely 1/40.” Hammond shows this proportionality theory to to wrong on its face, for, if it were true, the days for a middle aged person would be quite literally buzzing by in comparison to the days of their younger selves.

Only a moment’s reflection should show us that the proportionality theory for time’s seeming quickening as we age can’t be true. Think back to your school days waiting impatiently for the 3:00 pm bell to ring: was it really much longer than the time you spend now stuck to your chair in some meaningless business meeting? There are some difference in the gauging of how much time has passed between the young and the old, yet these are nowhere near large enough to explain the differences in the subjective experiences of how fast time is passing between those two groups. So if proportionality theory doesn’t explaining the speeding up of time for the middle aged- what does?

When thinking about duration, the thing we need to keep in mind is, as the work of Daniel Kahneman has shown, we have not one but two “selves” an experiencing self and a remembering self. Having two selves does a number on our ability to make decisions with our future in mind. The experiencing self wants us to eat the cookie now, because it’s the remembering self that will regret it later. It also skews our sense of the past.

Our sense of the duration of time is experienced differently by these two separate selves.Waiting in a long line feels like forever when you’re there, but unless something particularly interesting happened during your wait, the remembered experience feels like it happened in a blink of an eye. Yet, a wonderful or frightening experience, like a first kiss or a car accident, though it seems to fly by while we’re in it, usually cuts its groves deep enough into our memory that when we reflect upon it it seems to have taken a very long time to unfold.

Hammond’s explanation for why youth seems stretched out in time compared to middle age  is what she calls the “reminiscence bump” and the “holiday paradox”. Adolescence and young adulthood are filled with so many firsts they leave a deep impression on our memory and this “thickness” of memory leads our remembering self to conclude time must have been going more slowly back in the heady days of our youth- the reminiscence bump . If you want to make your middle age days seem longer, then you need to fill them up with exciting and new things, which is the reason, Hammond speculates, that holidays full of new experiences seem fast when we’re in them, but to be stretched out on reflection- the holiday paradox. She wonders, however, whether the better option is just not to worry so much about time’s speed and rest when we need it rather than constantly chase after new memories.

Given the interest of the audience here in extending the human lifespan I wonder what the implications of such discovers regarding time on that project might be? A comedy could certainly be written in which we have doubled the length of human life, and end up also doubling all those things we now find banal about time. Would human beings who lived well beyond their hundreds be subject to meetings that stretched out for days and weeks? Would traffic jams in which you spent a week in your car be normal?

Perhaps we might even want to focus on our ability to manipulate our sense of time’s duration as an easier path towards a sort of longevity. Imagine a world where love affairs could stretch out centuries and pain and boredom are reduced to a blink, or a future that has “time retreats” (like today’s religious retreats) where one goes away for a week that has been neurologically altered to having felt like it was decades or longer. We might use the same sorts of time manipulation to punish people for heinous crimes so that a 600 year sentence actually means something. One might object that such induced experiences of slow time aren’t real, but then again neither are most versions of digital immortality, or even, as Hammond showed us, our subjective experience of time itself.

All of this talk of manipulating our sense of time as a road to longevity is just playful speculation on my part. What should be clear is that any move towards changing the human body so that it lives much longer than it does now is probably also going to have to grapple with and transform our psychological notions of time and the society we have built around our strange capacity to warp it.


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…

Visions of Immortality and the Death of the Eternal City

Vangough Flowers in a blue  vase

It was a time when the greatest power the world had yet known suffered an attack on its primary city which seemed to signal the coming of an age of unstoppable decline.The once seemingly unopposable power no longer possessed control over its borders,it was threatened by upheaval in North Africa,  unable to bring to heel the stubborn Iranians, or stem its relative decline. It was suffering under the impact of climate change, its politics infected with systemic corruption, its economy buckling under the weight of prolonged crisis.

Blame was sought. Conservatives claimed the problem lie with the abandonment of traditional religion, the rise of groups they termed “atheists” especially those who preached the possibility of personal immortality. One of these “atheists” came to the defense of the immortalist movement arguing not so much that the new beliefs were not responsible for the great tribulations in the political world, but that such tribulations themselves were irrelevant. What counted was the prospect of individual immortality and  the cosmic view- the perspective that held only that which moved humanity along to its ultimate destiny in the universe was of true importance. In the end it would be his movement that survived after the greatest of empires collapsed into the dust of scattered ruins….

Readers may be suspicious that I am engaged in a sleight of hand with such an introduction, and I indeed am; however much the description above resembles the United States of the early 21st century, I am in fact describing the Roman Empire of the 400s C.E. The immortalists here are not contemporary transhumanists or singularitarians but early Christians whom many pagans considered not just dangerously innovative, but also, because they did not believe in the pagan gods, were actually labeled atheists- which is where we get the term. The person who came to the defense of the immortalists and who laid out the argument that it was this personal immortality and the cosmic view of history that went with it that counted rather than the human drama of politics history and culture was not Ray Kurzweil or any other figure of the singularitarian or transhumanist movements,  but Augustine who did so in his work The City of God.

Now, a book with such a title not to mention one written in the 400s might not seem like it would be relevant to any secular 21st century person contemplating our changing relationship with death and time, but let me try to show you why such a conclusion would be false. When Augustine wrote The City of God he was essentially arguing for a new version of immortality. For however much we might tend to think the dream of immortality was invented to assuage human fears of personal death the ancient pagans (and the Jews for that matter) had a pretty dark version of it. Or, as Achilles said to Odysseus:

“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

For the pagans, the only good form of immortality was that brought by fame here on earth. Indeed, in later pagan versions of paradise which more resembled the Christian notion “heaven” was reserved for the big-wigs. The only way to this divinity was to do something godlike on earth in the service of one’s city or the empire. Augustine signaled a change in all that.

Christianity not only upended the pagan idea of immortality granting it to everybody- slaves no less than kings, but, according to Augustine,  rendered the whole public world the pagans had found so important  irrelevant. What counted was the fact of our immortality and the big picture- the fate that God had in store for the universe, the narrative that got us to this end. The greatest of empires could rise and fall what they will, but they were nothing next to the eternity of our soul our God and his creation. Rome had been called the eternal city- but it was more mortal than the soul of its most powerless and insignificant citizen.

Of course, from a secular perspective the immortality that Augustine promised was all in his head. If anything, it served as the foundation not for immortal human beings nor for a narrative of meaning that stretched from the beginning to the the end of time- but for a very long lived institution- the Catholic Church- that has managed to survive for two millennia, much longer indeed than all the empires and states that have come and gone in this period, and who knows, if it gets its act together may even survive for another thousand years.

All of this might seem far removed from contemporary concerns until one realizes the extent to which we ourselves are and will be confronting a revolutionary change in our relationship to both death and time akin to and of a more real and lasting impact than the one Augustine wrestled with. No matter what way one cuts it our relationship to death has changed and is likely to continue to change. The reason for this is that we are now living so long, and suspect we might be able to live much longer. A person in the United States in 1913 could be expected to live just shy of the ripe old age of 53. The same person in 2013 is expected to live within a hair’s breath of 79. In this as in other departments the US has a ways to go. The people of Monaco, the country with the highest life expectancy, live on average a decade longer.

How high can such longevity go? We have no idea. Some, most famously Aubrey de Gray, think there is no theoretical limit to how long a human being can live if we get the science right. We are likely some ways from this, but given the fact that such physical immortality, or something close to it, does not seem to violate any known laws of nature, then if there is not something blocking its appearance, say complexity, or more ominously, expense, we are likely to see something like the defeat of death if not in this century then in some further future that is not some inconceivable distance from us.

This might be a good time,then, to start asking questions about our relationship to death and time, and how both relate to the societies in which we live. Even if immortality remains forever outside our grasp by exploring the topic we might learn something important about death time and ourselves in the process. It was exactly these sorts of issues that Augustine was out to explore.

What Augustine argued in The City of God was that societies, in light of eternal life had nothing like the meaning we were accustomed to giving them. What counted was that one lead a Christian life (although as a believer in predestination Augustine really thought that God would make you do this if he wanted to). The kinds of things that counted in being a good pagan were from Augustine’s standpoint of eternity little but vanity. A wealthy pagan might devote money to his city, pay for a public festival, finance the construction of a theater or forum. Any pagan above the level of a slave would likely spend a good deal of time debating the decisions of his city, take concern in its present state and future prospects. As young men it would be the height of honor for a pagan to risk his life for his city. The pagan would do all these things in the hope that they might be remembered. In this memory and in the lives of his descendants lie the possibility of a  good version of immortality as opposed to the wallowing in the darkness of Hades after death. Augustine countered with a question that was just as much a charge: What is all this harking after being remembered compared to the actual immortality offered by Christ?

There are lengths in the period of longevity far in advance of what human beings now possess where the kinds of tensions between the social and pagan idea of immortality and the individual Christian idea of eternal life that Augustine explored do not yet come into full force. I think Vernor Vinge is onto something (@36 min) when he suggests that extending the human lifespan into the range of multiple centuries would be extremely beneficial for both the individual and society. Longevity on the order of 500 years would likely anchor human beings more firmly in time. In terms of the past such a lifespan would give us a degree of wisdom we sorely lack, allowing us to avoid almost inevitably repeating the mistakes of a prior age once those with personal experience of such mistakes or tragedies are no longer around to offer warnings or even who we could ask- as was the case with our recent financial crisis once most of those who had lived through the Great Depression as adults had passed.

500 years of life would also likely orient us more strongly towards the future. We could not only engage in very long term projects of all sorts that are impossible today given our currently limited number of years, we would actually be invested in making sure our societies weren’t making egregious mistakes- such as changing the climate- whose full effects wouldn’t be felt until centuries in the future. These longer-term horizons, at least when compared to what we have now, would cease being abstractions because it would no longer be our great grandchildren that lived there but us.

The kinds of short-termism that now so distort the politics of the United States might be less likely in a world where longevity was on the order of several centuries. Say what one might about the Founding Fathers, but they certainly took the long-term future of the United States into account and more importantly established the types of lasting institutions that would make that future a good one. Adams and Jefferson created our oldest and perhaps most venerable cultural institution- The Library of Congress. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Later American political figures, such as Lincoln, not only did the difficult work of keeping the young nation intact, but developed brillant institutions such as Land-Grant Colleges to allow learning and technological know-how to penetrate the countryside. In addition to all this, the United States invented the idea of national parks, the hope being to preserve for centuries or even millennia the natural legacy of North America.

Where did we get this long term perspective and where did it go? Perhaps it was the afterglow of the Enlightenment’s resurrection of pagan civic virtues. We certainly seem no longer capable of taking such a long view- the light has gone out. Politicians today seem unable to craft policy that will deal with issues beyond the next election cycle let alone respond to issues or foster public investments that will play out or come to fruition in the days of their grandchildren. Individuals seem to have lost some of the ability to think beyond their personal life span, so perhaps, just perhaps, the solution is to increase the lifespan of individuals themselves.

Thinking about time, especially long stretches of time, and how it runs into the annihilation of death, seems to inevitably lead to reflections about human society and the relationship of the young with the old. Freud might have been right when he reduced the human condition to sex and death for something in the desire to leave a future legacy inspired by death does seem to resemble sex- or rather procreation- allowing us to pass along imperfect “copies” of ourselves even if, when it comes to culture, these copies are very much removed from us indeed.

This bridging of the past and the future might even be the ultimate description of what societies and institutions are for. That is, both emerge from our confrontation with time and are attempts to win this conflict by passing information, or better, knowledge, from the past into the future in a similar way to how this is accomplished biologically in the passing on of genes through procreation. The common conception that innovation most likely emerges from youth, if it is true, might be as much a reflection of the fact that the young have quite simply not been here long enough to receive this full transmission and are on that account the most common imperfect “copies” of the ideas of their elders. Again, like sex, the transmission of information from the old to the new generation allows novel combinations and even mutations which if viable are themselves passed along.

It’s at least an interesting question to ask what might happen to societies and institutions that act as our answer to the problem of death if human beings lived for what amounted to forever? The conclusion Augustine ultimately reached is once you eliminate death you eliminate the importance of the social and political worlds. Granting the individual eternity means everything that now grips our attention become little but fleeting Mayflies in the wind. We might actually experience a foretaste of this, some say we are right now, even before extreme periods of longevity are achieved if predictions of an ever accelerating change in our future bear fruit. Combined with vastly increased longevity accelerating change means the individual becomes the only point in history that actually stands still. Whole technological regimes, cultures, even civilizations rise and fall under the impact of technological change while only the individual- in terms of a continuous perspective since birth or construction- remains. This would entail a reversal of all of human history to this point where it has been the institutions that survive for long periods of time while the individuals within them come and go. We therefore can’t be sure what many of the things we take as mere background to our lives today- our country, culture, idea of history, in such circumstances even look like.

What might this new relationship between death and technological and social change  do to the art and the humanities, or “post-humanities”?  The most hopeful prediction regarding this I have heard is again Vinge, though I can not find the clip. Vinge discussed the possibility of extended projects that are largely impossible given today’s average longevity. Artists and writers probably have an intuitive sense for what he means, but here are some examples- though they are mine not his. In a world of vastly increased longevity a painter could do a flower study of every flower on earth or portraits of an entire people. A historian could write a detailed history of a particular city from the palaeolithic through the present in pain staking detail, a novelist could really create a whole alternative imagined world filled with made up versions of memoirs, religious texts, philosophical works and the like. Projects such as these are impossible given our limited time here and on account of the fact that there are many more things to care about in life besides these creations.

Therefore, vastly increased longevity might mean that our greatest period of cultural creation- the world’s greatest paintings, novels, historical works and much else besides will be found in the human future rather than its past. Increased longevity would also hopefully open up scientific and technological projects that were centuries rather than decades in the making such as the recovery of lost species and ecosystems or the move beyond the earth. One is left wondering, however, the extent to which such long term focus will be preserved in light of an accelerating speed of change.

A strange thing is happening in that while the productive lifespan of an individual artist is increasing- so much for The Who’s “hope I die before I get old”–  the amount of time it takes an artist to create any particular work is, through technological advancement, likely decreasing. This should lead to more artistic productivity, but one is left to ponder what any work of art would mean if the dreams of accelerating technological change come true at precisely the same time that human longevity is vastly increased? Here is what I mean: when one tries to imagine a world where human beings live for lengths of time that are orders of magnitude longer than those today and where technological change proves to be in a persistently accelerating state what you get is a world that is so completely transformed within the course of a generation that it bears as much resemblance to the generation before it as we do to the ancient Greeks. What does art mean in such a context where the world it addresses no longer exists not long after it has been made?

This same condition of fleetingness applies to every other aspect of life as well from the societies we live in down to the relationships with those we love.  It was Augustine’s genius to realize that if one looks at life from the perspective of individual eternity it is not the case that everything else becomes immortal as well, but that the mortality of everything we are not becomes highlighted.

This need not spell the end of all those things we currently take as the vastly important long lasting background of our mortal lives, but it will likely change their character. To use a personal story, cultural and political creations and commitments in the future might still be meaningful in the sense that my Nana’s flower garden is meaningful. My Nana just turned 91 and still manages to plant and care for her flowers that bloom in spring only to disappear until brought back by her gentle and wise hands at the season’s return. Perhaps the longer we live the more the world around us will get its meaning not through its durability but as a fleeting beauty brought forth because we cared enough to stop for a moment to orchestrate and hold still, if even for merely a brief instant, time’s relentless flow.