Reinventing time

The times they are a-changin’. This Bob Dylan song has a deeper meaning than we usually realise. For our sense of time, of the pace and direction of its flow, transformed several times in human history. And this perception is undergoing significant changes again today. So here’s a short story about our sense of time, how it evolved, and how it shapes our liberties and certainties.

Cyclical time

Our natural sense of time is subject to the planetary motions and their direct consequences. Hence we experience time as cyclical: every morning the sun rises, every evening the sun sets, seasons change, leaves fall, birds migrate. Our sense of time is thus structured in days and years. And for many millennia, this circular perception was the only way to experience time. You could sit by the fire side listening to the stories of the elders, and their stories would make sense to you and have bearing on your own life. Your future equaled their past. This predictability provided reassuring certainty, but it also meant that you had very little freedom to influence your destiny.

Linear time

Sparked by the Agricultural Revolution, our ancestors gradually developed an enlightened sense: time essentially became linear. By adding hours, weeks and months, and later on seconds, decades and centuries, they gave more structure, granularity and nuance to the flow of time. That ultimately broke the cycle and turned time into an unremitting stream. In this new view, the future was built upon the past, but without necessarily resembling it. Suddenly, the future was what you made it, and man became master of his fate. Liberated from the shackles of providence, our ancestors gained the freedom to act in their own self-interest, but they paid with the loss of certainty of what the future would hold for them. From that moment onward, they were aware that they had to bear the consequences of their decisions. But even though they / we enjoy the freedom gained, such accountability under uncertainty can be tiresome.

Historically, major transformations (like the Grand Revolutions) occurred many generations apart. Between those periods of high-paced dramatic changes, living conditions evolved only very slowly, over generations. Hence the elders could still offer meaningful advice to younger generations. This “guidance from the past” offered comfort and reassurance to those who exercised their freedoms; it provided some orientation for the unknown future; it helped to maintain a basic a level of certainty. However, the tremendous acceleration of change that was triggered by the Industrial Revolution drastically reduced that certainty, that comfort, that reassurance.

By the mid of the 20th century, grandparents’ experiences already had little in common with their grandchildren’s lives. Today, transformational change in technology, economy, and society occurs so fast that any individual is likely to observe several such waves within his or her own lifetime. Hence we observe a prevalent sense of uncertainty, of a lack of orientation. At the same time, the range of choices to pick from, the diversity of options has exploded. And as the need to take decisions increased, the fear of making a wrong choice grew as well. As a result, the freedom of choice comes across as a challenge, and liberty is perceived as a burden: The freedom we want has become more inconvenient than we like.

NOW!

With the Digital Revolution, that development is gaining additional momentum, and the consequences are far from innocent. It seems that are willing to embrace what I’d like to call a “post-temporal” sense of time. As the linear sense becomes ever more compressed, our past, our presence, and our future all collapse into one singular point: NOW!.

The philosopher Armen Avanessian briefly explores this concept and its effects in Miamification. We all know that the big internet platforms, whether they offer social media, search engines, or mobility services, live on the data their users provide. The more data they gather, the better their algorithms are able to judge user interests and preferences. These algorithms are then employed to anticipate the user’s next wish, with the ultimate goal of delivering what is desired before the question is actually asked. At a superficial glance, that might seem like magic. Imagine: the future is already there before you even think about it; and it is the future that fulfills your wishes. But the predictive capabilities of these algorithms can easily serve dystopian purposes; just keep in mind that they are built upon vast amounts of data about every single individual. The dark path leads from predictive analytics to pre-emptive intervention (think Minority Report) to prescriptive analytics and straightforward manipulation.

One might be tempted, even want, to dismiss this idea as a distant, long-term, unlikely scenario. However, the historian Yuval Harari argues in The Myth of Freedom that this dystopian future is nearing quickly. He starts from the notion that free will in the very enlightened sense is actually a myth: a totally rational, but otherwise unconstrained freedom of the expression of human will does not exist. The physiological and psychological wiring of our brains is all too able to intercept our rational moments and to take charge of our decision-making. And that wiring can be hacked, i.e., it can be exploited to manipulate our choices, decisions, and actions. All that is required for such a hack is a good understanding of the inner workings of our brain, vast amounts of data, and sufficient computing power.

The conditions for such deep-reaching manipulation are largely met today. You can observe it on social media platforms that will do whatever they technically can to make sure that you spend more time on the platform, that you generate more data, and that they can present better targetted advertisements. Again, you might just shrug: that’s the price to pay for using a free-of-charge platform. Maybe you are okay with it, as long as these tools aim at your wallet. But what about taking aim at the ballot? Remember Cambridge Analytica? Is that an acceptable price to pay?

The really eerie element is the hyper-precision that such tools of propaganda and manipulation have already achieved: it’s called micro-targetting. Sounds innocent enough, as long as we ignore its macroscopic impact. For the first time in human history, manipulation that is aimed at an entire community but be tailored precisely to each specific individual member of that community. These algorithms are vastly more powerful than any earlier suppression machinery, whether you think of the Inquisition, the GeStaPo, the StaSi, or the Securitate. What would they have done, in their day, with today’s means?

Trouble ahead

The problem with our lazy, greedy, fearful selves is that we want both, freedom and certainty. With circular time, we had certainty, but we missed freedom. With linear time, we gained the freedom we wanted, but we lost certainty along the way. With post-temporal time, we seem to regain certainty, but in an undesirable way and at the expense of our freedom. Is that what we want? For what reason? Is that a conscious decision, because the responsibility of freedom and the accountability under uncertainty are too stressful, are too tiring, are wearing us out? Or an unaware choice, taken out of convenience, simply because technology offers an easy way out?

The big question to all of us is this: Is the undeniable comfort of a little more certainty worth the loss of our fundamental freedom? For if we were to let that happen, we’d really enter into a whole new era: a technology-enabled dystopia that would demonstrate innovation at its worst.

 

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