Jordan Lei
6 min readJul 11, 2020

This is the first 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. This work builds off of an excellent trove of books and literature, most notably Yuval Noah Harari’s work, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century and Homo Deus. If you like this series, you should check out his work.

Next Chapter

But first, the future. You’ll have to come with me on this one, because like it or not, you’re in it.

You’re sitting. Are you comfortable? Good. You glance nervously at your phone, maybe check the weather. Looks like it might rain soon, but it’s hard to tell if those are rainclouds on the horizon or just your imagination. You get a notification for a meeting you’ve scheduled with a friend, who is (fashionably) late, as always. Of course, there’s nothing new here. This is life as usual.

Despite their mundane appearance, almost every aspect of the last paragraph would have been utterly foreign to someone living centuries ago. Even without the tangible technological changes — the smartphone, the weather forecast, or the calendar app — our basic notions of time have fundamentally changed within the span of a few centuries. But in order to show you how, I need you to travel with me, back in time and space.

We’re standing in an endless field of grain, the golden wisps forming waves against the relentless wind. The sun hangs high in the sky, beating down rays of gold onto the earth. The smell of earthen mud mix with the putrid smell of manure. A tattered wooden shack stands in a clearing of dirt, and you can hear the sound of oxen and cattle in the distance. There’s no indication of it, but you’re in the French countryside, around the 11th century. We walk over to a kind peasant woman, who welcomes us into her home. It’s quieter here, and the smell isn’t so strong.

Offhandedly, you ask her for the time. She stops, looks at you with a puzzled glance, and tells you that it’s the twelfth day of the harvest season. We might count our time in seconds, minutes, and hours, but to a peasant woman in the Middle Ages, time was measured in days, seasons, or years. You ask her if she has any kids, and she explains that she had seven, but four died shortly after birth. I chime in with “so what do your children do for a living?” and again she gives us a strange glance.

“They are farmers,” she says, “Just like me, and my parents before me. And their children will be farmers too, and so will their children’s children.” This is the future in the Middle ages. A peasant woman in Medieval France would reasonably expect that her children would lead very similar lives to her own, and that their children would do the same. In essence, our modern idea of a future in which the world changes radically in a few decades hasn’t been invented yet. In the Middle Ages, centuries could pass by in the blink of an eye, and no one would know any better. Sure, wars might break out (noblemen had a habit of launching costly Crusades when they got bored), famine or disease might strike on any given year, and the country itself might change hands between a few kings, but on the whole, what life looked like for someone a century before wouldn’t look so different from life a century after¹.

At this point the peasant woman is getting suspicious, so we had better leave before she asks us out herself, on no uncertain terms. Let’s come back to the present. You, sitting in 2020, your phone or laptop nearby. Comfortable? Good.

Think back to the year 2000, just two decades ago, and how different everything was back then. If you just step back 20 years, you’d see a world radically different from our own. Want to watch a video online? Good luck. Not only was streaming not yet viable, 3G wouldn’t be rolled out until 2003, YouTube until 2005. Have a question you want answered? You can go to the library, or if you’re feeling up for it you can search Yahoo!, the dominant search engine of the time. Forget smartphones. Forget Uber. Forget same-day-delivery. Of course, each of these innovations might not seem like a significant change on its own, but remember that behind each innovation is an entire industry and a way of life. Don’t believe me? Try spending a few days without your smartphone and tell me how many missed calls, strongly-worded emails, and concerned texts from Mom you receive. Yeah, things have changed.

All this is to say that when we talk about the future today, what we mean is something entirely different from what the future meant to our friendly-neighborhood-Medieval-peasant. In the past, looking into the future was much like looking across a field into the horizon. Miles and miles of the same stuff. Today, looking into the future is more like standing on the edge of a cliff, waiting for the clouds to part.

Wanderer above a Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich. An exemplary image of Romanticism in art. Wikimedia Commons.

In the modern age, the future is different, it is accelerating, and it is malleable. It is different because we expect the future to hold new changes to current living standards, the way in which we interface with one another, and the way in which we view the world. It is accelerating because technology doesn’t stop; we expect new discoveries to beget newer discoveries, and progress to follow progress. It is malleable because, unlike Medieval France, we believe that we are the change-makers, and if we don’t leave the world better than we found it, it’s our fault for failing to do so.

This radical shift in the way we view time and the future didn’t happen overnight, and the way we adapt to this radical new view of tomorrow may have implications that extend far beyond our own lives.

This series is about the future, yes, but it’s also about the present and the past as well. The history of the future involves a discussion of how we got here, where we are, and what to do with this newfound information. Make no mistake: this series is not about fortune-telling; it’s about how our relationship with the future, and by extension, time itself, has changed over the past few centuries. How did we get from friendly-neighborhood-peasant to present-day-you? In this series, we will cover how a machine reinvented time and how we made prophets out of mortals. We will cover how we’ve turned scarcity into abundance, and how we’ve built minds out of machines. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

Ultimately, this series is about us. Now that we’ve reinvented the future, what’s next? What does it mean to live in an age where the future is more tangible than ever, but still out of reach? In this series, I’ll take you to the edge. It’s going to be one hell of a ride.

[1] Harari, Yuval N. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. , 2016. Print.

[2] Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens : a Brief History of Humankind. New York : Harper, 2015.

[3] Harari, Yuval N. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2018. Print.



Jordan Lei

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