We are all time travelers now
“The future is here — it’s just not evenly distributed” (William Gibson). Reflections from a month into the Milan quarantine about relationships, systems, time, and being human.
Over the course of six hours on Sunday, February 23rd, the Western world began to turn upside down.
It’s strange to be able to date it to almost the hour. It’s stranger still to realize now it has already been an entire month of shuttered storefronts and self-isolation here in Milan, Italy (barring the now-infamous few days of missteps in between the first and second government decrees). Several weeks already of new rituals, both the societal ones we perform when we leave home to go to the supermarket and the personal ones we’ve invented with friends to care for one another across space, each from our own apartment.
In the early weeks, as we all groped our way into this new being, I tried to document what felt important on Twitter and Instagram. My free time filled with phone calls and a rabid diet of news and data. I was grateful when loved ones reached out from America to see how I was doing, but I only really felt comfort talking with people here, whatever we spoke about somehow different knowing we shared a context that was hard, for now, to grasp from outside.
Then the reality of coronavirus hit America. My past became their present, one city at a time. I eased friends into what they might expect in the coming days. And I was surprised to find I felt even more of a gulf splinter open, not less.
“Been thinking of you,” I texted a friend on March 16th, “I just feel like now we are all in little bubble universes without bridges.” Because everyone back home was now all of a sudden living all the things I’d been worrying about by then for weeks: the enormous costs of healthcare in the US, the precariousness of employment (gig or otherwise), the income inequality that felt overwhelming even in the best of times, the more individualistic culture, systemic differences of all kinds. Because wherever you are, everything happens so quickly once it starts, didn’t it? — there is so much you feel the need to stay on top of to understand what someone is going through, what to tell them. How hard it was to do that across two languages for so many places with so much information we all needed to fact-check at the same time.
But then a friend might call (that one whom I texted did). And something I didn’t expect happened.
For as long as we talked, our two worlds bridged again. That yawning gulf faded into the background for a little while. We were two humans who cared about each other. What else had seemed so insurmountable? I couldn’t describe exactly what I was feeling, but I knew we humans were the ones that made it happen. That little stitch in spacetime. That fragile bridge into a shared present.
Rewind, briefly: before coronavirus, before New Year’s, before this move. In the still-warm days of a Denver fall I discovered a book that might already be outpacing Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as the one I gift the most. It is The Order of Time by physicist Carlo Rovelli, and it is an artwork and journey into the philosophy and physics of time, relations, and perspective. Nothing I could excerpt from it tells you enough about the whole, but here is one part that began to slip into my mind these last few weeks:
The distinction between past, present, and future is not an illusion. It is the temporal structure of the world. But […] the temporal relations between events are more complex than we previously thought.
We say that an event is, or has been, or will be. We do not have a grammar adapted to say that an event ‘has been’ in relation to me but ‘is’ in relation to you.
— Carlo Rovelli
It was always true. But like so many things I’ve found myself relearning in the solitude of this month, sometimes you need to step outside of your everyday reality to see, or perhaps remember.
In fact many of us humans right now are taking advantage of this global time machine to try to make a meaningful difference in our local near futures of the coronavirus pandemic. At their best, cities or countries that were more recently impacted looked to the strategies, successes, and failures in China, South Korea, Singapore, and Italy, which gave us new ideas and at the same time cautioned us to some of the very human flaws to which epidemiological simulations or government policies might be subject. As the crisis in Italian hospitals mounted, researchers, healthcare providers, makerspaces, engineers, volunteers, and small-scale manufacturers elsewhere in the world had already started to join forces: developing and vetting designs to address supply shortages in personal protective equipment; sewing face masks in their homes; collaborating on global opensource projects to develop ventilators that could be produced cheaply and quickly. More slowly, governments prepared to retool large-scale manufacturers to address imminent shortages. The future had already happened here in Lombardy long before it became the present of Seattle and New York City. That bought at least a little time.
In time, we will also see another, more speculative kind of time travel related to the coronavirus pandemic. This crisis creates a strange experiment. With so many places in the world battling the same impossible factors at once, we are already seeing the impacts that different social practices, societal norms, and contingency plans have on how the crisis evolves, and on what other systemic issues become clearer in its wake. As we begin to return to or rebuild whatever comes next, we will also start to see the impacts that different cultural values, different kinds of worker protections, different structures of government have on a country’s resilience. We will start to see among the people around us the different traces that any manner of life circumstances, quarantine rituals, and inner fire inscribe upon a person as they unfurl from this experience changed, even if we could never tally these complexities up into a spreadsheet.
I write as though this were all yet to come but even now we already see these things shifting as countries and communities and individuals alike strategize for the months ahead. Resilience, after all, unlike growth, has an amorphous time dimension built into it: a capacity to thrive in the wake of a future about which so much is suddenly uncertain. Uncertain to us, for now, at least, from where we’re sitting or standing, watching a quiet locked down world outside. Or perhaps yours is a world where people aren’t staying home yet, unable, or not sure what to make of everything they’ve been hearing. Or a world which already remembers a first day with no new coronavirus infections and where the concrete streets are slowly beginning to reblossom with human life.
I can’t help but ask myself another question these days, too. Where else are we already time traveling? What other pockets of space are already living the realities that will become our own in another year or decade or half century? What bridges can we build today across that swath of spacetime?
An interactive map by Switzerland’s Crowther Lab based on the data of this 2019 journal article tells me that by 2050, even in what the authors call an “optimistic climate scenario,” Denver’s climate will likely look more like Biskhek in Kyrgyzstan, my birthplace of New York City like Virginia Beach, and Milan like Dallas. Dallas in turn will feel like Austin; Austin like Peshawar, Pakistan. What could the present-day realities of these unlikely sister cities tell us today about how we prepare for our local tomorrows?
After all, if we had glimpsed ahead into the future of each nation’s struggles with the coronavirus, before the overburdened hospitals, before the climbing deaths, before the economic hardship had all been written immutably into our collective past… aren’t there things that we’d like to say we would have done differently?
And we humans are the ones who can do it. Make a knot in the threads of spacetime, hold up our end of that fragile bridge. Even if just for today. Even if just to check in. Even if only for ten minutes. If maybe I was just calling to make sure you were doing okay.