How might time change in a future of society? (perceptions of time, time spent, time lived)
Telling the Future with History
For the last decade I’ve been a part-time investor and part-time futurist.
An oft-repeated phrase in the investment world is "past performance is not indicative of future results." It cautions investors to have a more robust model of their domain than can be gained by relying on the recent history alone. Investors who only rely on short-term historical trends are often derisively called speculators.
In the world of futurism, however, things are weirdly flipped. In order to be a respectable futurist, one should only rely on recent historical trends, and pointing out how the future might radically differ from remembered history is often derisively called speculation or even science fiction.
In think the investors are right here, and futurists would do well to learn from them.
In both professions, predictions based on recent history tend to work well for a while, and then fail catastrophically. Often the most important facts about the future are counter-trend and counter-intuitive. Just like investors relying on short-term trends will do well for a while, only to get burned once the bubble bursts, futurists only looking at the recent past will be right for a while, and then completely miss transformative events.
It is true that confidently predicting the timing of technological developments like heavier-than-air flight, nuclear energy, or superhuman intelligence is not reasonable. However, confidently ruling these out altogether would be an entirely equivalent mistake.
So what should we do in order not miss the most important aspects about the future?
Interestingly, history can still be indicative of the future—often it's just a matter of looking sufficiently far back. For example, while stock prices tend to be hard to predict in the short term, in the long term, the stock market tends to reflect economic growth, which is much more predictable. Similarly, the difference between being short-sighted and prescient might be just a matter of looking farther back in time.
For example, heavier-than-air flight could have been predicted by noticing that, long time ago, evolution had invented it.
This is the crux of my argument. For similar reasons, when it comes to predicting long-term effects of AI, we should not be satisfied to merely look to recent AI scandals, like Microsoft tay, or Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. We should not even limit our time horizon to the Industrial Revolution. Instead, we should step even further back and see what happened on this planet when, for example, evolution invented the human brain.
In summary, I hope that futurists would learn from the investment community. Being mis-calibrated by only looking at short-term history is irresponsible speculation, and to be well-calibrated, one should not be afraid to look much farther back—possibly well before humans existed.
The Future of Time
Time and space are two concepts that frame our perception of life, mobility, health and the economy, and are not often questioned in themselves. However, our relation to time is changing and this can have an impact on our decisions, anticipations, expectations and fears.
Our relation to time is changing in many ways.
Firstly, more and more leaders, citizens and employees must deal with multiple simultaneous time horizons, even if it means dealing with paradoxes, divergences and tensions that are increasingly visible in the public sphere. This can easily be seen when investing money. You can invest for a short-term return or you can take into account the impact of your investment on matters such as climate change or biodiversity for the long run and, for instance, choose to stop investing in carbon-intensive activities.
Secondly, new forms of time data visualisation are emerging, illustrating time spent on social media, walking, or how much you need to invest today to have enough money in your pension tomorrow—these visualisations are changing the way we may choose to allocate our time and can have an impact on our life. They may sometimes be biased, influencing us in a way we may fail to consider. They can capture our attention and push us to immediate actions. So UX designers have an increasing role to play in the way we perceive time, change our habits or choose not to change. Some critical thinking is needed to determine how time data visualisation can have a social, economic or political impact.
Finally, more and more people are in the business of predictive algorithms. These increasingly personalised predictions (for example, risks of getting cancer or, heart attacks) can change how we view our own time on earth, our own future, and how we live it. Some researchers such as A. Rouvroy make a plea for the right to an “unpreoccupied future”. The impact on individuals’ intimate spheres, such as their family, can be substantial.
What can we do about this?
First of all, we can give power to our imagination to free ourselves of linear thinking, limited predictions, and tech-led data visualisations. We need to re-invent our singular relation to our own time.
Secondly, we can collectively deconstruct the visions of time we feel uncomfortable with. We can exercise our thinking: what if my vision of time was not linear? What if I changed the measure of time (from minutes, say, to days or years)? I had another vision of my past, would it change my future?
We can use objects or works of art that project a different vision of time. For instance, designers have created a clock that expresses the number of seconds or minutes or hours till the end of the week, or the end of the year. It changes the way people think about their priorities and the here and now.
Time & Society 4.0
It’s an aphorism oft-repeated that the pace of change is accelerating and, by extension, our sense of time is compressing.
Many of us live amidst a barrage of timelines, deadlines, headlines, inboxes and notifications that shatter our attention and fray our collective nerves.
“Continuous Partial Attention Disorder” is a term coined by Linda Stone to describe the result, an experience of constant low level distraction that divides our awareness into finer and finer slices in order to keep up with the flow of events around us.
The ability to partition time can offer many advantages, as Col. John Boyd observed decades ago. He or she who can most rapidly observe the changes in their environment, make sense of them, decide on a course of action and then act is “Certain to Win,” in the words of Chet Richards, one of Boyd’s students and colleagues.
This relationship to time does, however, come at a cost. Nick Carr points out that our brain literally changes as it adapts to high-stimulus, fast time environments.
Our brains become more plastic, helping us make and break synaptic connections faster in order to facilitate faster pattern recognition, higher volume information intake and a heightened ability to make sense of rapidly flowing disconnected data.
This neural architecture also results in hurried and distracted thinking, the inability to concentrate deeply, impaired memory and superficial learning, to say nothing of the stress, anxiety and fatigue which contribute to higher rates of burn out and depression.
“The net seizes our attention, only to scatter it,” writes Carr. Or as Bruce Sterling wrote about Twitter, “it’s like being beaten to death by a thousand croutons.” Continuous partial attention also contributes to a political atmosphere of fear, distrust and anxiety, rendering a geopolitics of emotion susceptible to extremism, inflammatory populism and easy manipulation.
There is a small but significant counter trend to this, represented by books like Cal Newport’s Deep Work and the resurgence of various forms of reflective practice. I’ll come back to this “slow culture” work later on, but for now, let's fast-forward to imagine how societies might evolve under the continued influence of connected neurotech, augmented reality, extended InstaSenses, synaptic Tik Tok, nootropic live streams and the like.
As usual, science fiction can be a useful guide. The literature is replete with examples of benefits of sensory enhancement and human augmentation. Most stories focus on glorified adventure stories, starring cowboy-like protagonists who act as cyber-heroes. But the more insightful ones reveal tensions that sensory enhancement is likely to produce. Frederic Pohl’s Man Plus, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein illustrate how the augmented become a class unto themselves, powerful and capable, but isolated, lonely and withdrawn from human experience, yearning to be a part of the whole again despite their more than human nature.
One story in particular speaks to the current impacts of technology, however, and paints a prescient picture of the social consequences of continued distraction.
“THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal,” writes Kurt Vonnegut the opening lines of his 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron”.
“They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking, stronger, or quicker than anyone else.”
Harrison Bergerer, the main character, is an athlete and a genius. Seven feet tall with dashing good looks and fearsome intelligence, he is rendered equal through a mix of “Halloween and hardware,” handicapping devices that make him half blind, deaf, distracted and barely able to walk. In an act of defiance, he breaks free on live television only to be gunned down by the Handicapper General himself.
His parents, George and Hazel, watch the entire scene unfold on television:
“It was tragic, all right, but they couldn't think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.”
Although the story is really a commentary on political correctness, it beautifully describes the effects of constant distraction which, in this case, have been weaponised to enforce social uniformity and compliance.
This is a future infinitely accelerated, infinitely sliced cognition, with no past and no future, where our perception of time is so shattered that we become functional vegetables, trapped in an E.M. Forster-like media machine, dependent entirely to the ebbs and flows of the info-stream and those who control it.
Facebook, Internet Research Group, Donald Trump: I’m looking at you.
So, the topic of this panel is “time”. How will we conceive of our time on earth (and beyond)? How will we measure our individual lives as traditional markers of time and life-stage bleed together, and how will we make sense of our existence?
One clear implication is that, quite simply, we won’t. We will become what Bruce Sterling has called “atemporal”, awash in a hurricane of stimulus, disconnected from the epistemological anchors that ground us in a sense of who we are, where we are going and why we exist. We will, quite literally, go mad, unable to differentiate fact from fiction, wisdom from ignorance, reality from fantasy.
Koyaanisqatsi. Life out of balance.
Let us return to Deep Work, then. Deep work is a phrase I first heard
introduced by the computer scientist Cal Newport, which he defines as “working in a state of high concentration without distractions on a single task.” This kind of work is hard, creates new value and is hard to replicate.
Deep work takes time. It requires quiet, focus and reflection. It is also the only kind of work that is likely to retain its value in a world of automation, AI and simulation.
Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is the template for this future. It describes walled monastic communities with extremely limited access to tools whose only interaction with the outside world is governed through ritualistic opening of the gates once a year, once a decade, once a century or once a millennium, depending on the order each community belongs to.
These reflective communities act as archives of scientific, philosophical and cultural knowledge, protected from the rise and fall of society outside its walls over the course of thousands of years. They are a filter for that which endures, operating on deep time, with slow culture. They hide and protect that which is fragile, preserving the experience of depth which results only from long, slow, difficult reflection.
There are several notable examples of this kind of thinking that are acting against information saturation and acceleration today. From millennium-scale projects like the Clock of the Long Now to Ben Vicker’s work on metamonasteries, reflective communities focusing re-engaging with deep time are emerging as counterweights to the Notification Culture I’ve just described.
As we explore the culture of Society 4.0, a term which, I believe elevates WEFitarians to a level of false intellectualism, the majority of society will continue to gravitate towards increased distraction, fragmentation, anxiety and fantasy. This will splinter our sense of time and, as computer scientist Mark Gelernter has written, result in “living multiple lives, at different speeds, in different worlds, with different trajectories and different life goals…” In other words, a condition not so different from the clinical definition of psychosis.
But as this wave of confusion continues to wash over us, I believe we will see an ever-growing counter trend towards unplugging. Towards reflection, meditation, isolation and retreat. From nightclubs that refuse entry to those with mobile phones to mystery cults operating entirely off the grid, these counter movements will become increasingly powerful and significant. This will become even more the case if life extension technologies bear fruit, which brings us back to the framing question of this session.
“In ‘Society 4.0’, how will we master Time itself?” We will not, I argue, master time. Instead, wisdom dictates that we will submit to time, as our ancestors have done, and in doing so, avoid the dangerous fantasies of escape that both drive, and result from, contemporary media culture. Only then, I believe, do we stand a chance at avoiding social and ecological collapse in the coming century.
Meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
Is where it’s useful.
Clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
Is where its useful.
Cut doors and windows
To make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
There’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
Is in the use of what isn’t.”
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11, Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation