Towards a history of time: a summary

I have attempted to outline a historical development that can broadly be described as a process of acceleration. At the same time I have tried to show how this acceleration can be said to unfold in many ways, operate on many levels and have many consequences. It can therefore also be read in a multitude of places. Given that time is not, in the Kantian sense, a homogeneous medium that can be decontextualised, the acceleration cannot be said to take place without being incarnated in events, objects or people. Thus my description has mostly highlighted the ways in which the perception of time has changed in human consciousness – in the inner world. When the temporal meta-context in a society and for individuals begins to take on a faster pace within a shorter timeframe, human consciousness itself becomes synchronised with this new temporality, and the human understanding of time changes. As a result, the new actions that are performed are also constituted on the basis of speed and short-termism.

The human understanding of time has changed dramatically over the past three centuries. The changes have taken place in line with the development of specific technologies that have enabled acceleration. Generally speaking the changes can be summarised as follows:

  • a streamlining and intensification of time

  • an extensification of work time

  • a marginalisation of slow forms of time

  • a devaluing of long-term thinking

  • an intensification of information density and a resulting ’pauselessness’

  • the decontextualisation of human beings from their concrete (temporal) surroundings radically increased uncertainty about the future

All these aspects either lead to or are consequences of the general historical acceleration. In this view, the contemporary understanding of time tends towards the pathological. There is a limit to how much a society’s rhythms can be accelerated. At some point the speed will become too great both for ourselves and for the ecological world in which we live – arrhythmia sets in.

Between the abstract and the concrete

Across the various theories I have presented above, one can trace an idea of human beings’ decontextualisation from their concrete or natural environments – environments that, temporally speaking, tend to be cyclical.

In general, technology has long had the effect of removing people from their natural environments and their synchronisation with the cosmic timegivers. For instance, the invention of the electric light levelled out the cosmic cycle of day and night, heating systems and air conditioning regulate the indoor climate in homes, shops sell unseasonal fruits and vegetables from other parts of the world all year round. From a human perspective, although this has made life a great deal more convenient, it has also partly levelled out our experience of the seasons’ cosmic cycle. The biggest change may have occurred as a result of the expansion of the digital world, which has no sense of cosmic temporality, with the exception of certain functions such as reports and representations of the weather. The digital world is available at any time on any day, e-shops are never closed and operating platforms can be used at any time. Only the individual’s own body sets the limit for the digital nonstop society – after all, we still have to sleep.

I have repeatedly used the word ’abstract’ to describe the digital world in which we humans spend more and more of our lives. ’Abstract’ suggests the opposite of ’concrete’, something that is detached from reality. Here an interesting schism arises. On the one hand, as Hassan points out, the digital world is just as concrete, or ’actual’, as our cities and the natural ecology within which we have built our world. It takes up a large part of our daily lives and determines our lives and livelihoods on many levels. Thus the virtual world cannot be said to be unreal. However, this new virtual non-space exists outside of time and space and is therefore to an extreme degree cut off from the physical manifestations of our natural surroundings, both materially and temporally. Much of humanity now spends its time in a lifeworld that is at once real and decontextualised from the physical world – as approaching a state of unreality. What is problematic here is that living more or less cut off from the ’world of things’, or the natural world, does not mean that the pollution we emit disappears – it just disappears from sight.

The context that disappeared

As shown, the dominant time technology in the first temporal Empire was the clock. Rather than upholding a timescape that abide by many different times, the clock becomes a Zeitgeber and creates a hegemony. In this context one can speak of a hierarchical temporality in which the time culture that follows the clock as Zeitgeber subjugates the many other modes of time that relate to the human lifeworld. The relationship between these different modes of time is of crucial importance at this stage of history, since this is when that relationship begins to change radically.

In the second temporal Empire a new Zeitgeber appears: network time. As I’ve shown, this can also be described as ’empty time’, since it frees itself completely from temporal contexts of any kind – including the abstract time grid of clock time. The illusion of empty time now makes its historical appearance. It is only possible to talk about empty time when one does not experience time based on one’s actual surroundings – in which there will always be temporalities – or when one’s environment becomes virtual, instantly accessible and dematerialised.

What is at stake here is that the Eigenzeiten of things and the actual environment are at risk of becoming overlooked or even altogether invisible to us, since our perception of time is dominated by an empty time that does not provide the conceptual space necessary to perceive the diverse and concrete temporalities of things. Cyclical and slower forms of time seem particularly at risk.

Since our contemporary understanding of time is largely based on our virtual and decontextualised life-world, we have largely lost awareness of cyclical forms of time. This is problematic, because it means that critiques of the increasingly uncompromising linear time model used in contemporary society are in danger of losing their grounding. And this in an age were natural (re)sources are consumed in a linear manner with no considerations of the pauses needed for regeneration and replenishment.

Growth versus long-term thinking

Oil and gas are examples of resources that are currently being used at a pace that bears no relation to the time they took to develop. At the current rate of use, a long list of metals will as well be gone in the near future – metals that are basic components of many of our everyday utility items. The logic of using up a resource at a pace that is faster than its regeneration time is grounded in the desire for increased production per unit of time. This can therefore also be analysed from a temporal perspective.

Moreover, the ideology of economic growth is strongly linked to short-termism. If one takes a long-term view of the idea of growth, its problems quickly become clear. There are very few areas of our society where people now speak of longer periods of time than twenty years. For the sake of illustration, one could contrast this with the idea of cycles of ’kalpas’ in Buddhist cosmology, which relates to the time span it takes for the world to be born, exist, die and await a new birth. In Buddhist cosmology, this cycle lasts about 4,320,000 years. This mythology also has equations designed to give a sense of the number of kalpas that have already occurred, a timescale that is even more awe-inspiring. Whether this is a cyclical or an extremely long-term view of time is almost a moot point, since the two can hardly be distinguished in the human imagination.

One can identify certain guiding narratives that underlie the worldview of any given society. Buddhist cosmology speaks of time as something immense. We might ask which guiding narratives about time underlie our view of time now that we have broken with both religion and the so-called grand narratives (One can go so far as to say that norms as such in our historical situation are under constant fire. For example, Terry Eagleton points out how both postmodernists and neoliberals are ’suspicious’ of all kinds of norms, values and traditions. See Eagleton 2003 p. 29). Which guiding narratives do we have to lead our lives and societies by now?

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