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We are all people of a common time

By Brian Kase

 

We are still, as much as we may choose to ignore the fact, biologically dependent upon our environment.

The past thousand years can be characterized as a period of almost unimaginable technological advancement. During this time the pace of this change has steadily increased in geometric leaps. This is self-evident. But for all our mastery and manipulation of our planet’s resources man remains man - Homo sapiens - primate. We are still, as much as we may choose to ignore the fact, biologically dependent upon our environment. It may not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that our culture and our society, as well as our individual preferences are merely an appeasement to our surrounding for allowing us to perpetuate our existence with a minimum of pain and concern. As individuals, we must adapt to the surroundings that are no longer the natural world. Instead we must learn to live in our human-made, technological environment. It is in this way that technological change has had a profound impact on the formation of human consciousness. And it is likely that our consciousness has been effected most profoundly in that we have become acutely aware of the presence of time in our lives. If we look at the state of individual consciousness at the start of the past thousand years we do not find many individuals planning to pursue their MBA (or the Y1K equivalent) nor do we find workers in mid-career (a very modern concept in itself) financially investing for their retirement. Instead we see 99.9% of humanity doing what their parents did - which is what they imagined that their ancestors had done, and their descendants would be doing, for all eternity - planting crops, hunting, etc.

There was no earthly future that could be envisioned.

There was no historic perspective that could have shown them that the past was not necessarily always the same - thus there was no basis for an awareness of the possibility of future change. The only possible change in pattern of their lives would be mythic or religious. There was no earthly future that could be envisioned. They lived only in the present and the present was eternity. Few knew when they were born or how old they were. They were not aware of the month or even of the year. This information had no relevance. Life occurred in a radically different temporal framework. Our world view of the flow of time would have been alien to them to the point of incomprehensibility. This is not to suggest that we have evolved to the state of possessing a superior or "objective" perspective of time. Their framework was as functional for their era as our framework is functional for ours. Agrarian and hunter/gatherer societies did not need to divide the day into mechanically delineated segments. There was no need for temporal coordinates that were not tied directly to the natural world. The difference between day and night had far more impact in a world lacking artificial light. They would of necessity have been concerned with the physical condition of their environment. Of primary consideration would be whether or not the conditions were conducive for taking care of certain essential tasks such as hunting and planting. Of course these individuals - the same species that we are today - would have been aware of seasonal change and optimal times of the day for taking care of certain tasks. But their concept of time was inseparably related to the natural physical environment. It was not an abstraction as it has become for us.

How we interface with the physical universe.

Few who will read this are directly concerned with the state of the natural world since we live the greater part of our lives cocooned within artificial environments. I am not writing this in order to increase our awareness of the destruction of our natural world (although this is certainly a worthy cause). It is intended more as an illustration of the contrast between our past and present states of awareness of how we interface with the physical universe. Each of us today is aware that the world we live in is different from the world that we were born in. And the world that we will die in will be just as different from today’s world - unless, of course, fate has some nasty surprise waiting in the wings. We have learned to expect and prepare for continuous change. Change itself becomes part of the environment to which we must adapt. Most of us, for example, must constantly update our skills or we run the risk of becoming obsolete in our places of work. When appliances break they can rarely be replaced with models with the same - now outmoded - features. We must learn to use these new products which ultimately become part of our everyday environment. (It is not incidental that a very large portion of these items come with built-in clocks: VCRs, radios, cars, microwave ovens, etc.) Since virtually all of these products within our everyday world are standardized it is not much of a leap to suggest that our living environment is also significantly standardized. Considering the fact that, in addition to the standardization of our physical space, we all live within a grid of standardized time the conclusion is that we live not so much in a location as in an era. In the past people lived timelessly within various environments such as deserts, woodlands or forests. Each location would put different demands on their occupant’s lives. As a result the manner in which each of these cultures operated differed greatly.

We are all people of a common time.

Today, as a result of technological development, location and geographical distance are relatively insignificant factors. Rather than being people from different places we are all people of a common time. Now, if physical distance is in the process of being eliminated as a social/cultural factor (as we can see in the virtual communities coming into existence on the Internet) our common bond becomes the fact that we can be involved with any, or all, people of our time. This purely technological development- instantaneous communication to anywhere in the world - would be seen as nothing short of sorcery to individuals of the past. There has for millennia been a conscious awareness of physical space and distance. But an awareness of the movement of time in segments smaller than that of day or night began to accelerate with the invention of the mechanical clock approximately seven centuries ago. From that point on time has been delineated into progressively smaller units. This has led to advancement in discoveries in the interaction of time and space epitomized by Newtonian physics. Ultimately it has been discovered that time and space do not "interact" as much as they flux as a single entity: "spacetime". As much as it may seem contradictory to our sensory awareness one can not refer to space without referring to time or vise versa. When we glance at the Sun few of us have in the forefront of our minds the fact that the image that we see is the Sun as it looked eight minutes ago. We can only see the next nearest star as it appeared over four years ago. Slight delays can also be noticed in various phenomena, such as satellite transmissions, closer to our everyday experience. To be precise we cannot refer to a location without referring to a time nor is it relevant to speak of a time without referring to a location.

Light travels faster than sound.

We know where the Sun was eight minutes ago. We can only speculate (in this instance with great accuracy) about the current position of the Sun. And conversely our knowledge of the location of the Sun only works if we factor in a specific time. This is also true, although unobservable to our senses, on a much smaller scale. I ran a 220-yard sprint when I was in school. The person timing this race stood at the far end of a straight 220-yard track with a starter’s pistol and a stopwatch. We were told to begin the race, not when we heard the sound of the pistol, but when we could first see the smoke from the pistol. We could easily see the smoke well before hearing the sound of the gun. This clearly shows that light travels faster than sound. But that is beside the point. Light, too, does not travel instantaneously and, although the time it takes light to travel a 220 yard distance is immeasurable with a stopwatch, the same phenomena does in fact occur with light as with sound. It is impossible to say that the beginning of the race occurred at both ends of the track at the same time. Reconciling this discrepancy is more complex than multiplying the speed of light by the distance since movement itself will further disrupt this relationship. We can not ignore movement as a factor since time and movement are inseparable. Without movement there can be no time and without time there can be no movement. As a result it is technically incorrect to refer to two events as occurring simultaneously. And if there can be no simultaneity this ultimately draws the concept of the linearity of time into question. Just as each space is separate from every other space by distance each time is separated from every other time by physical space. But if all other places exist at different times it is possible to speculate that all other times exist in different places. When a moment passes does it disappear completely or does it recede into the "past" at the speed of light? The fact that it does not disappear completely is evident by the fact, as mentioned above, that we can only see the Sun as it looked eight minutes ago yet we can still see its light and feel its warmth. If we could see a person from this same distance we might be able to observe their activity but their experience of this same activity would have occurred eight minutes ago.

Does the experience of this moment disappear completely or does it too
recede into the past at the speed of light?

A more metaphysical question can then be asked. Does the experience of this moment disappear completely or does it too recede into the past at the speed of light? Does each element of spacetime exist forever like an individual frame of a motion picture - with the rapid succession of each frame giving us the illusion of movement? In that case would it be possible that not only the visible residue of an occurrence remains always in existence but also possibly the experience of that occurrence? Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, and Jorge Luis Borges’ short story "The Aleph" are examples of literature that play with notions of the elasticity of space and time. The existence of these works are evidence of a willingness of readers to entertain such notions. Several centuries ago such ideas would have found few, if any, readers who may have found them relevant to their understanding of the world. To take our speculations one step further, what if spacetime does indeed unfold frame by frame like a motion picture - with each frame representing a different time, and an infinite amount of reels unspooling side by side, each representing a different location? How then can we say with certainty that there is an "I" who experiences these occurrences? Perhaps we are pedestrians and bystanders who are identifying a little too much with the vividness of the presentation - much like losing oneself in a book or movie. Many of these possibilities seem very unlikely. But if such perspectives come into vogue, and it is inevitable that a perspective currently alien to us will dominate, then we will be forced to once again ask ourselves who we are. We will always be able to come up with a new answer that will fit the demands of the times. And we will always wonder how it was that those in the past failed to see the obvious.

 

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@The Light Millennium magazine was created and designed
by Bircan ÜNVER. March-April 2000, New York.