Culture

The Future Of Time

We can define time; it does not have to define us.

We can define time; it does not have to define us.

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When did you get your first cell phone? When was the first time you used a GPS device? When was the first time you answered e-mails for work someplace other your office?

As commonplace as these activities are now, each one represents a fundamentally new kind of behavior with respect to time. Walking down the street while talking to someone across the country is a new form of time behavior, just as "punching-in" for work was a new form of "time-logic" 100 years ago. Most importantly, each of these recent additions to the time-logic of our age is closely tied to a technology that is, itself, tied to science. Over the past few posts we've been exploring the history of Modern Time, its tyranny over our lives and its braiding to our cosmologies. Today it's time to close the loop and imagine the future of time in both science and culture, while keeping our own best interests squarely in view.

There is a time-pocolypse coming. One way or another, we are already reinventing time through our scientific vision of cosmology and through our culturally shared experience of the everyday. The only question before us is: What kind of time will we be left with?

Let's begin with the big picture. In the last post we saw that cosmologies, scientific or otherwise, are the unseen bedrock on which each culture builds it time. No re-imagining of the human experience of time will be complete without a re-imagining of time in a cosmological setting. As last week's Nobel Prize in physics demonstrates, our cosmology is in the midst of a transformation. Given that undeniable fact, we can ask what new visions of time already exist at the frontiers of cosmology, and how might these be metabolized by culture? One potent example of where cosmological time might be headed comes through the work of Andy Albrecht and his Clock Ambiguity.

Albrecht is a quantum cosmologist at UC Davis who did some of the earliest work on inflationary cosmology — the dominant version of big-bang theory. Recently, however, Albrecht's work at the frontiers of fundamental physics has pushed him into unexpected territory, where the very definition of time is up for grabs.

In normal life, we measure time by picking an object and letting it act as a measuring standard — a clock. Our clocks might be water dripping from a faucet, the swing of a pendulum or the oscillations of a quartz crystal. In each case, ordinary folks (and physicists) separate out some part of the world, some subsystem, and use it as a timekeeper. But in his studies of the universe (taken as a fully quantum mechanical entity) Albrecht found this separation was not straightforward.

If you're trying to explain the fundamental history of the universe, you can't just assume time — you have to figure out where it is in quantum cosmology's equations. You have to figure out what part of your mathematical description represents time. The problem Albrecht found is that no unique formula tells physicists how to do this.

There is no unique formula that explains how the universe evolved because there is no unique way to pull time apart from other pieces of the equation. Try doing it one way and the physics of the universe comes out looking like what we see everyday — protons, neutrons, etc. But try pulling time out in a different way and the physics comes out looking completely different. How could the physics of the universe depend on an arbitrary choice of clock? It shouldn't. But, according to Albrecht's research, this Clock Ambiguity is central to quantum descriptions of reality.

There is, in Albrecht's work, no unambiguous means of identifying time in a fundamental description of the universe. While other physicists think there should be some way around the Clock Ambiguity, Albrecht thinks this new, "softer" vision of time is something science may have live with.

The Clock Ambiguity is one example of a radical new understanding of time coming to life at the hairy edge of cosmological thinking. There are others. At this stage of the game it's impossible to say which will find validation in data. What the Clock Ambiguity does show, quite forcefully, is that fundamentally new concepts of time are already out there now, being poked and prodded by scientists. Science is playing with its version of a new time. If history is any guide, then culture and its time will have to follow suit.

But culture doesn't change just because science does. Instead, there is what might be called an enigmatic entanglement between the two. Their influence upon each other sloshes back and forth, each responding to its own imperatives.

Our rapidly constructed global culture is clearly facing pressures in the form of changing climate, the end of cheap oil and conflict over resources such as fresh water, fisheries and forests. Responding to any of these may be enough to force dramatic changes in what we do and how we do it, i.e. equally dramatic changes in our cultural time-logic. If, for example, gas costs $20 a gallon, then quick trips to the convenience store will come to represent a time-logic whose logic has been exhausted.

But revolutions in time have always been a complicated dance between what we make with our hands and what we conceive with our minds. Technology has always been the middle ground — the shop floor — where new time and new time-logics are hammered out. Our digital age is no different. What we have failed to see is our own role in the process.

Beginning three decades ago, we were promised a new age of freedom through devices that would let us work more efficiently and at our convenience. Instead, this new world was only half-born and digital technologies now have us working everywhere, all the time. Rather than giving us a new time, our Facebooked, GPS-mapped, mobile-connected lives appear to be lashed ever more tightly to the rigid industrial time-logic of our grandparents world.

Where, then, is the fluid, flexible time these new silicon-enabled devices should have enabled?

The problem, clearly, is not just technology, but what we do with it as individuals and as a collective culture. Just as science is in the midst of a grand experiment reinventing cosmological time, we are in the midst of an epoch-making experiment in reinventing our cultural time. Even in the midst of history's broad and powerful flow; this experiment is still one we can all take part in.

The trick is to move beyond time slavery and become, instead, a time-bender.

What does it mean to be a time-bender? It begins by recognizing that the creation of new human times is a creative act. It means using whatever opportunities our lives afford (limited as they may be) to opt out of the old time-logic and create a new one.

In practice, time bending might mean using new technologies to soften the rigid time we have been taught to believe is real. Maybe the next time you make an appointment with a friend, keep it fuzzy. See what "around 6 p.m." feels like since you both will have cell phones and can find each other when you need to. To the degree that your schedule has any flexibility, maybe time bending means surfing your natural periods of concentration, working when you are sharpest, even if it's at 11 p.m., and going down when your attention dims.

Beyond technology, time-bending means willfully stepping back from the imagined urgencies your culture handed you. How many activities does your child need to be part of? Can you cancel just one appointment next week? How about leaving early enough for an appointment that you have time to hang around and just wait? How about keeping some version of a Sabbath — a day where you don't buy anything or drive anywhere or accomplish any damn thing?Finally, and most important, how about just slowing down?

Really.

As you go from your car to the office, walk slowly. As you walk from the elevator to your desk, move slowly. Simply slow down. Opt out of our culture's principle, and now antiquated, time-logic of speed and efficiency to see what happens.

The point, ultimately, is that a new time is coming, whether we want it or not. If we want it, we can, in our own way, try and shape our new time into something that just might make our own lives more mindful, more connected and more meaningful.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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