Cyclical Futures

By Cecilia MoSze Tham with Mark Bünger

Summary: Competing concepts of time as a line or as a cycle have dominated culture, society, and science for centuries. Three iconic movies — Ghost in the Shell, In the Mood for Love, and Arrival — elegantly illustrate cyclical time in ways that can help us think more clearly about humanity’s future.

Culture, Cinema, and Cyclical time

“你想不想食飯?” ”Do you want to eat lunch?” my mom would ask me when I was a child. I never really thought much of the construction of the question. But if I were to translate this word by word, it would go something like “Do you want not want to eat rice?” It sounds a bit strange translated, but having lived in multiple countries and speaking multiple languages, I realise how much this concept of time is molded in culture. In asking, “Do you want not want to eat rice?”, the question is already presenting a whole both positive and negative, full circle, like yin and yang.

We already know that different cultures see time differently. In the West, we generally see time as linear. We go from the past to the present, then to the future.

In the East however, time is perceived as cyclical, and those cycles are inevitable (larger than self, like seasons, or sunrise/sunset).

So while in English (and most Germanic, Latin, Slavic, and other Indo-European languages) we conjugate verbs in past/present/future tenses, there is no such conjugation in Chinese. With Chinese verbs, the action that the verb is related to is treated the same, regardless of the time it did, does, might, or will occur. Instead of conjugating the verb, time is presented through time related words, like today, yesterday, already, or yet.

{我}(今天 )<去>[超市] — {I} <go> to the [supermarket] (today)

{我}(昨天 )<去>[超市] — {I} <went> to the [supermarket] (yesterday)

{我}(已經 )<去>[超市] — {I} (already) <went> to the [supermarket]

{我}(還沒有)<去>[超市] — {I} (still) <have not gone> to the [supermarket]

These differences in the perception of time are not just found in languages, but in other aspects of culture as well. Most Western religions and mythologies have a Creation story and an End Times story (Genesis and Apocalypse, Yggdrasil and Ragnarok). Eastern religions like Buddhism play with the idea of reincarnation and karma, cycles of life that hinge on continuity, reconnecting back to others, from the past and into the future. Japanese temples, for example, are regularly rebuilt (say, every 20 years) with the same materials, and same methodologies. The rebuilt version — the “copy” in Western terms — isn’t any worse or less valuable than the “original”. It is just seen as a new cycle, but the same temple.

I began to notice a fundamental and key difference in these two ways of viewing time. When time is understood as a cycle, there is less emphasis on the “beginning” or “end” nodes: birth or death, starting or stopping, falling in love or breaking up. Time is always understood as something in transition. Three movies illustrate cyclical time extremely well.

Aspect to Aspect (Ghost in the Shell)

Recently in a workshop facilitated by a friend of mine, I discovered the concept of “aspect to aspect” used in manga movies and graphic novels (watch this great video explaining it, in the context of the movie Ghost in the Shell). A typical Western (Marvel, Mickey Mouse, or Asterix) comic book or film shifts from “action to action” in successive panels or scenes — the villain hits the hero in one panel, then the hero strikes him back in the next. Japanese artists, however, often move from “aspect to aspect” of a scene to create a sense that the reader’s imagination integrates into an understanding of the whole situation. The aspects might be simultaneous events; or a transitional rendition of different angles, like leaves falling and a car passing by; or changes unfolding over eons. “Moments” in the scene depict the context, drawn out in time. It’s as if someone just pinpointed somewhere on this cyclical representation of time and said, “Show me what that moment looks like.”

Shattered time (In the Mood for Love)

My all-time favourite movie, In the Mood for Love, also uses this concept of aspect to aspect (which is explored beautifully in the essay “Shattered Time”). Key moments are always captured with slow motion, focusing on every mundane detail, highlighting the scenery. Two observations were especially revealing for me:

First, there were enough of these moments used to depict the world that the characters live in, that they immerse the viewer into that world, even though the viewers themselves have to fill in the in-between, connecting the dots. Topologically speaking, cycles are repetitive, but the viewer’s whole picture would be vastly different if the movie had presented different moments.

Secondly, the movie compresses or elongates the intervals between these “moments”, like a time warp, the same way our individual perception of time changes depending on the context of where we are and the activities that we are doing. A fraction of a second could be dragged out into minutes, and months could be compressed into seconds.

Circular reasoning (Arrival)

All these elements are even more evident in the movie Arrival. The aliens (“heptapods”) write in two-dimensional cyclical chains of semagrams in no linear sequence. The heptapods don’t write one word or sentence at a time, but rather draw their entire diagram simultaneously. Not coincidentally, the original story that Arrival is based on, Story of Your Life, was written by the Chinese-American science fiction author Ted Chiang.

Arrival, AI and Alien Math

Cyclical futurism

We are accustomed in the west to process time linearly, we try to envision chains of events happening one after the other: cause-effect, cause-effect, cause-effect. The problem is, this line into tomorrow recedes and soon passes over a horizon. It might be 50 years away or five, we gradually lose sight of its shrinking shape, and eventually can’t see it at all. Looking back, too, we’re limited by our knowledge of history — the events and decisions, random tragedies and strokes of blind luck that got us here. We can’t think linearly about critical long-term issues facing humanity, because our imaginations can’t see the line to its ends. And even if we could, the past and future are never a simple sequence of cause and effect, and the last endpoint we can see is only one of many possible or potential futures.

What if we fundamentally change the presumed topology of time, using cycles to deal with the emerging complexity of our exponentially growing dataset and information surrounding us? How are we going to encapsulate these “instances” or “moments” of these data to integrate a better picture of our future anticipation via these cycles? How can we incorporate this way of thinking in our algorithms, in our future thinking and in our technology?

Cyclical futurism is intrinsically non-binary because it doesn’t focus on the end states of things or events. It looks at transitions that are going on all around us, all the time — and will from today into the far future. Cyclical futurism incorporates:

  • Interval variation: The objective duration between moments is not necessarily equal, nor must they have the same perception in time. Minutia matters, but milestones may not.
  • Embracing multitudes. Rather than rejecting non-core datapoints, cyclical futurism requires them, to reach a critical mass of multiple moments that help us understand the whole picture (incorporation of non-binary perspective).
  • New network topology. Cycles are a means to address emerging complexity in network topology (typically described as centralized/stars, decentralized/webs, and semicentralized/distributed). Cycles comprise a new pattern of interconnectivity, which permits the network new mechanisms, properties, and behaviors.
  • Inverting reality and relationships. Aspect-to-aspect cycles focus on transitional moments and not end states (non-binary). The relationships between things are what is real, not the things themselves. This truth is also found in complex adaptive systems, where the iterating function can be more important than input or output of one cycle, i.e. any two points in space or time. For example, Great attractors funnel futures into cyclical paths that still never precisely repeat.
  • Infinite permutations. In contrast to the dearth of imagination in linear thinking, cyclical futurism demands different combinations of these moments. Shattering one implied storyline into pieces gives you the ability to reconnect them in more patterns than you can possibly run out of. Every variation can paint a different end picture, each of which can be examined, evaluated, and pursued or avoided. Rather than trying to predict the most likely one, we can curate these plural futures and bring the ones we want into being.