Building Facade, Pixabay, Pexels.

on lost time

This is the fifth chapter in a series of pieces about our modern relationship with time and the future. Titled Hourglass, It’s an exploration into how our abstract view of time has changed in modernity, how it has met (or has yet to meet) the needs of the present, and what we can do to better prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

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Threadless

When Herodotus finished writing his work, The Histories, in the 5th century BCE, he enshrined himself forever as the “Father of History” for the western world¹. His work covered his travels, interviews, and interactions with the western world around the time of the Persian Wars, often in vivid detail with a good deal of embellishment¹. Today’s scholars would tell you that his lack of impartiality and his belief in word-of-mouth accounts make his work an early, but ultimately unreliable attempt at a historical account. What they won’t tell you is that his work, the supposed seminal work of history, unveils the deepest crack in its foundations — one that modern scholars still grapple with today. This, of course, is the fact that history cannot be severed from its author. That whoever seeks to imbue history with life ultimately puts themselves into the narrative, in one way or another.

The Great Fiction

When people say that history is written by the winners, this is what they mean. It’s not that historians intentionally bias their work. Rather, any work of experiential summation, whether it be artistic, lyrical, or yes, historical, involves making a decision: what part of the story deserves to be said, and what should be left out? In the immortal ending song of the Broadway hit Hamilton, “Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Tells Your Story?” That decision is made by a combination of factors, both conscious and unconscious. What results is a narrative that is equal combinations factual information and self-portrait, an account of what happened passed through a filter the shape of the author that committed it to paper. Therein is the crux of the problem: history is narrative fiction.

I should note at this point that this does not mean that history is false — the very opposite, in fact. Historians work very hard to be as objective as possible in the work that they create, and we should all be incredibly thankful that they do. Historical accounts are some of our best attempts at making sense of the facts in our past, and a cohesive story of our past is often what guides us towards the right future. Any attempt to construct something approaching truth requires us to synthesize our past experiences and place new information in the context of the old. History is our way of creating a collective self-image, something approaching the truth. But it’s equally misleading to assume that just because history is an attempt at truth, that there aren’t other stories out there that are equally valid, that collectively paint a broader picture of our existence. So long as history is useful and valid, in its own sense, there’s value to keeping it around.

There’s just one problem with that. In the 19th century, Nietzsche pronounced God dead. It wasn’t on purpose, but it was quite unfortunate nonetheless. What ensued was a blossoming of thought, focusing on the value of human life, and the sacred nature of the human mind, an intellectual movement called humanism. What could be more valuable than history — our narrative? History with a capital “H”? I have some bad news. In the century that followed, after we had purportedly killed God, we might have accidentally killed History too.

History is Dead, and We Have Killed It

At first, this might seem like a laughable notion. History? Dead? How could this be possible? Historians still have jobs, and the world continues on its merry way. But let’s trace for a moment the intellectual movements of the 20th century. Romanticism and its sister, Impressionism, had died out, and Post-Impressionism was on its way out the door. In the early 20th century, Modernism ushered in a rejection of traditional ideals of beauty, value, and authority, at the heels of the Great War (World War I) that lead to a “crisis of faith”. Postmodernism challenged notions of authority itself, following the devastation of yet another world war (World War II, in case you’re counting) and the tense standoff of the Cold War². And then …. what?

Historians disagree with when Postmodernism ended and what came to replace it, if anything. It’s clear that we live in a distinctly different age, with different values and beliefs than those of the 1960s, yet there isn’t a cohesive narrative to tell. After Postmodernism, the golden line of intellectual movements splintered and fell apart into a million different threads. Bruce Sterling, an American SciFi author, used the term Atemporality to describe our current state of existence (meaning, without time). He puts it best in his work, Atemporality for the Creative Artist:

History books are ink on paper. They are linear narratives with beginning and ends. They are stories created from archival documents and from other books. Network culture, not really into that. Network culture differs from literary culture in a great many ways. And step one is that the operating system is an unquestioned given. The first thing you do is go to the operating system, without even thinking of it as a conscious choice. [3]

The creation of the internet and its subsequent use to transform the space of knowledge has led to a splintering of narratives. As Sterling explains it, if you want to search for information, you can go to a search engine, which will automatically prioritize information to you in a networked way. From there, you can follow a link to one piece of information, to the next, to the next, onto infinity — with no conclusive end, and indeed, no clue how you got there in the first place. These links can come from anywhere, and anyone, at any time. On the internet, information is jumbled into an almost incoherent mess, and you can spend hours searching without actually getting at the heart of the first search query you entered³. Authority is determined by relevance, an abstract, nondeterministic concept that is determined by some combination of the query, the number of views, and the number of incoming and outgoing links, among other things.

Come to think of it, how would you go about measuring the authority of an author? You might see how many Twitter followers they had² or look for other experts to weigh in on their opinion. And those experts you might select by seeing what other experts think of them. And so on. Maybe they have a job in academia, or a .edu email address, which confirms that enough experts thought they had something valuable to say that they deemed them an expert, too. Right? Right? And because Postmodernism did such a good job of breaking down the concept of authority, what we’re left with is noise. Sterling argues, therefore, that the concept of history — that of a cohesive, collective narrative pushing us forward, is broken³. We’ll explore this concept of noise a bit more later down the line, but suffice it to say that in a world of noise, the only way to get heard is to be loud. You might not believe that our world is atemporal, or that history is dead, but no doubt you feel its consequences. The modern world is nothing if not loud.

Sterling’s view is, I believe, a bit too nihilistic for my taste. I’ll say it loudly for people in the back to hear — expertise isn’t dead. Facts still matter, and they exist. They’re just much harder to find when the world is noisy. It’s one thing to muddy the waters, and another thing entirely to point out that the water is muddy. Most importantly, our faith in the concepts of authority and expertise continues to exist today (although there may be evidence that this, too, is starting to falter). Nihilism itself is a type of faith, and most people either choose to reject it in favor of their own fictions or choose to accept it and move on. One thing is clear: the format by which knowledge is consumed, created, and dispersed is radically different today than it was before the internet. Our history will be typed, not written, and the consequences of this network of knowledge will extend, inevitably, into our collective consciousness.

When Nietzsche proclaimed that God is Dead, he didn’t mean it literally. People still go to church and worship Him every week. What he meant was that the relationship religion would have to the modern human was no longer the same as the relationship it had for the past few millennia. Similarly, when Sterling proclaims that History is Dead, he doesn’t mean that history is useless, or baseless. He means that our relationship with history has fundamentally changed, that the shape of our own narrative hinges upon a new, redefined relationship with the knowledge of today³.

Filling the Void

Sterling is quick to point out that his diagnosis isn’t necessarily pessimistic in nature. History may be dead, it’s true, but what we fill in this void will ultimately come to define the age we live in, the so-called Atemporal age. He points to works in “lost futures” and “generative art” as possibly arising from this age where time has diminished in meaning³. Indeed, the early optimism about the democratization of the internet was a precursor to this point of view; the idea of Silicon Valley as a shining beacon of hope, a New Renaissance for the Atemporal age. Those illusions were dashed pretty quickly (“what do you mean, I don’t own my data?”), but nonetheless it is helpful to see an example of the places where it might be worthwhile to store our hope.

And this view won’t last forever, either. The next movement that comes along, whatever it is, will eventually come to replace Atemporality, shuffling in a new set of ideals, values, and beliefs.

Atemporality is a philosophy of history with a built-in expiration date. It has a built in expiration date. It’s not going to last forever. It’s not a perfect explanation, it’s a contingent explanation for contingent times. [3]

Once it goes, we will once again be left with the question of what line of thought we will need to put in place to replace it. While it’s tempting to think that this might signal a return to a temporal state, a time when stories fit neatly on shelves in linear order, I personally think it’s unlikely to do so.

What the internet exposed, for all to see, was the kernel of doubt wrapped up in Herodotus’ story. That the narrative of history wasn’t ever truly linear, wasn’t ever as neat and tidy as we’d like it to believe. There were stories we never knew, stories we forgot, and stories we chose to leave out. Within that neat strand were millions of tiny threads, many of which have now been rendered invisible. Even when we wrote stories about intellectual movements, people lived and died in the background. It’s unclear, after these stories and perspectives have been left out in the open, whether we can (or should) put them back. These stories uncover harrowing tales of persistence and neglect. Many of these stories reveal, for the first time, histories of marginalized groups, races, and peoples. For the first time, history is written by the masses, not necessarily by the winners. The question is whether any of these voices can be heard over the noise.

And of course, Atemporality is just a theory, just a word, to describe an observation. It may very well turn out to be a false description, a false hunch, about the way we interface with our past. Personally, as of 2020, I find it rather compelling.

This piece itself is guilty on the highest order of peddling a narrative based on a select few vignettes to make a point. Of course, I don’t claim at all to be writing a historical account — in fact, the selective vignettes are the very basis of the series as a whole, but at the same time, it would be remiss of me not to point out the flaws in my own work. It’s simply not possible to write, on a human timescale, anything meaningful about the human relationship with time and expect to encapsulate even a fraction of it. Even this piece on Atemporality misses out on the nuance of several other voices who have chipped in on this topic.

So here we are. Complex observers in a complex world, living in a network of data that compounds upon itself every second of every waking moment. What results is a feeling of creative paralysis —of being frozen in knowledge and in time. In some ways, we have to keep going with what we have. One foot in front of the other. But without History, there isn’t a whole lot to go off of. Thankfully, we still have the present — our superior intelligence as a species, our own conscious perceptions of the universe — and the future. Those won’t possibly change anytime soon, right?

… Right?

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Jordan Lei

Jordan Lei

Neuro x Machine Learning x Art. PhD Student in Neuroscience @ NYU. Penn M&T 2020. www.jordanlei.com