The Culture of Time in 2019
Time is not just a unitary phenomenon, it is also a cultural phenomenon. Time creates the conditions for culture, validates culture, punctuates culture, and records culture.
In 1983 Stephen Kern published a broad cultural history of the spatial-temporal transformation experienced between 1880 and 1918. The Culture of Time and Space 1880–1918 outlined the sweeping technological and cultural changes experienced by society in a short period of just 38 years, detailing how these changes forced about new modes of thinking about time & space, before illustrating how those changes transformed the previous conventions and structures that had dominated cultural perception throughout the nineteenth century. Along side the prevailing narratives of the rapid technological progress associated with the telephone, electric lighting, steamship, motor car, aeroplane, x-ray, and machine-gun Kern also argued a compelling case for what was exchanged for this acceleration; namely the implicit conditions of a ‘temporality crisis’ in diplomacy that, it could be argued, brought about the beginning of World War 1.
In the summer of 1914 the men in power lost their bearings in a hectic rush paced by flurries of telegrams, telephone conversations, memos, and press releases; hard-boiled politicians broke down and seasoned negotiators cracked under the pressure of tense confrontations and sleepless nights, agonising over the probable disastrous consequences of their snap judgements and hasty actions.
Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space
This is an essay exploring of what a ‘Culture of Time’ might look like in 2019 if we were to look at it from a position beyond its all consuming present potency. It is a future speculation of the present in retrospect, an imagined view from above whilst being firmly fixed to the ground. I will propose two paradoxical fundamental aspects of contemporary time, the techno-economical driven reduction of temporal latency and the socio-individualist driven increase in temporal quality. It is these two notions which define and dictate our current conventions and structures of our current culture of time.
On Temporal Latency
We are living in an age of ‘race to the bottom’ of low latency reality.
Latency is defined as the delay between the input into a system to that system reaching the desired output. The achievement of ‘low latency’ has now become the organising idea of progress in both computing and communication.
We have in our time released a totally new social force — a stream of change so accelerated that it influences our sense of time, revolutionises the tempo of daily life, and affects the very way we ‘feel’ the world around us. We no longer ‘feel’ life as men did in the past. And this is the ultimate difference, the distinction that separates the truly contemporary man from all others. For this acceleration lies behind the impermanence — the transience— that penetrates and tinctures our consciousness, radically affecting the way we relate to other people, to things, to the entire universe of ideas, art and values.
- Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1970
What do you pay when you pay attention? You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t: all the goals you didn’t pursue, all the actions you didn’t take and all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.
- James Williams, Technology is driving us to distraction
On Temporal Quality
As the quantitative nature of time seems to push our relationship to each other and to reality to its boundaries the qualitative nature of time is seemingly traveling in the opposite direction — towards a more humanistic and value based measurement of temporality.
The collaborative workspace startup WeWork is valued at $20bn, making it one of the five most highly valued private companies in the US. It’s success is partly a direct implication of temporal latency’s drive towards extreme efficiency and productivity. A new generation of self-employed and self-starting workers are migrating out of formal career paths and into the informal world of Small and Medium Enterprise (SME), or startups. And WeWork is there to accommodate them when they do so, and where-ever they do so.
By the end of 2018, WeWork projects that it will have increased its number of workspaces to 400 and members to 400,000. Ask CEO Adam Neumann what makes the company so special, however, and he will say that it is about so much more than office space. It is about what he calls “We Generation” — a largely millennial workforce who demand more from their work than just a job. According to Neumann, they value experiences over material goods, crave a sense of community and fulfilment, and want to be part of something greater than themselves.
How WeWork became the most hyped startup in the world, WIRED, July 2018
Culture of Time
Like the introduction of World Standard Time had an seismic impact upon the shared experience of time between 1880 and 1918, so to are the combined entities of Reduced Temporal Latency and Increased Temporal Quality redefining and rewriting the metaphysical foundations of our intersubjective reality. Like changes to our perception of temporality at the turn of the nineteenth century vastly accelerated progress and productivity, complicated the conduct of international diplomacy to breaking point, and choreographed the lives of billions into a universal schedule of simultaneity — then to the current changes to our perception of time will rewrite our received culture and history.
Our ability to translate data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom may be permanently eradicated. As news cycles, communication cycles, market cycles, progress cycles accelerate into ‘real time’ phenomenon then the gestation period of meaning making will be rendered incompatible with the extreme present. Our interpretation of the world will be increasingly governed by what we perceive to be true rather than what we know to be true. Enlightened thinking will be replaced with ‘Lite Thinking’. Information that is the easiest to absorb and act upon will prevail over the reality of an understanding of complexity derived through critical consideration. We are essentially exchanging received wisdom for received messages. It will be increasingly assumed that algorithms will provide the weight of thought prior to most information’s arrival at our sensory inputs. Lite Thinking is hollowed out thinking, seemingly considered and validated, yet as airy as the metaphorical ‘cloud’ it originates within.
(Present) Quality over (Future) Quantity
Time itself has now become a matter of time. Whether future generations will be afforded the same experience, and quality, of time that we currently enjoy will be largely determined within the next two decades. The survival 200,000 years of human evolution now, ironically, lays in the tightrope walk of just twenty years. We have seemingly exchanged the right of future generations ability to experience time for our right to enjoy it in the present. And to enjoy it to its extremity, in the blind faith that the very same technological progression which has led us to the door step of existential crisis will save resolve its shortcomings and free future generations from the inevitability of the natural implications of over exploitation.
Technology, we hope, will overwrite the Universal law of cause and effect — by facilitating continuation of cause whilst completely eradicating effect.