In the Eye of the Time Storm
|Venkatesh Rao||Mar 23, 2018|
I've been re-reading some of Ursula Le Guin's books lately, and this bit from the opening of The Left Hand of Darkness struck me as both profound and deeply relevant to our tumultuous times:
It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes every New Year's Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang...
Thinking of the current year as Year One is a great orientation for remaining centered in time. It is also a great way to condition your thinking for atemporality, which is a powerful mental model for time in a digital postmodernity environment. So let me attempt to explain how to use the Year One idea, starting with a visualization of Le Guin's concept (mashed up a bit with Doctor Who opening credits imagery). Among other things, it is a good hack for keeping your sanity in the culture wars, without succumbing to the temptation to retreat under a rock in response to troubling news.
Visualizing Ursula LeGuin's Year One idea
To ground your consciousness is to center yourself in space and time.
Centering yourself spatially is relatively easy: perhaps you go on a quiet waterfront walk. Or perhaps you like shirin-yoku, the Japanese practice of "forest bathing." Or perhaps you just like to retreat to sit in a quiet room for a bit. Or at a Starbucks. Or perhaps you prefer the opposite extreme of a death metal concert. Whatever your preferred mode, centering your consciousness in space is easy because you can move about in space to actively seek your center.
Time, not so much. Our mental models of time are necessarily somewhat passive. We do not possess time travel. We can speed up or slow down the perception of time passing to some extent, but not travel in time. We can, however, refactor our perceptions of the past and future, and thereby affect the texture of the felt present. We can manipulate how we inhabit time.
Time orientations matter. In one revisit of the famous marshmallow study, it was found that kids who had been conditioned by highly uncertain risk/reward environments (such as poor kids) were less likely to wait for the second marshmallow. You can get a quick sense of your own time orientation using the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. It's not a great test, but it's okay for a quick sense of how you tend to inhabit time by default.
Personally though, I favor a literary-aphoristic approach to thinking about time orientations, over a psychometric one. Three in particular, are interesting.
The first is the Zen idea of beginner mind. I was enamored of it when I first encountered the idea a couple of decades ago, but now I think it is problematic. To come to terms with your memories and inherited history is a good thing. To come to terms with the idea that you have a non-empty future is a good thing. While it is occasionally useful to think like a beginner, beginner mind is not a good default. It encourages treating the present as particularly sacred.
The second idea, "today is the first day of the rest of your life" is similar in spirit, but subtly different. It helps you break out of the sunk cost fallacy, which is sometimes a good thing, but again, not a good default. It encourages thinking of the future as particularly sacred and the past as particularly profane. It encourages thinking of freedom as something that lies in the future, and the past as primarily a prison.
The third idea is "live every day as if it is your last." That's another interesting, but limiting idea, one that encourages a "wrap up the story well/settle your debts" attitude (this is deficit-hawk thinking at national budget level). Chances are, you're not going to die tomorrow. It occasionally makes sense to adopt a last-day orientation, but it too is not a good default. It encourages thinking of the past as particularly sacred, and a self-centered, disconnected/alienated attitude towards the future.
Most such time orientations are specialized ones, good to break out of the opposed default patterns, but aren't themselves good defaults. They typically suffer from having too narrow a temporal range or a degree of past/future asymmetry, resulting in what I think of as one sort of "time disease" or the other. The three most common default time diseases are, unsurprisingly, present, future, and past bias, corresponding to the three orientations I discussed above.
Time diseases can be thought of as freedom-constraining cognitive conditions resulting from lack of temporal balance (or equivalently, thinking of some parts of time as more sacred than others). To find your temporal balance is to regain freedoms lost to time diseases. That's where the Year One idea comes in.
The fictional society in Le Guin's story takes the Year One idea seriously. It is derived from the philosophies of the fictional mystic Meshe, who views all of time as a simultaneously existing continuum with the present as a center. This understanding of time shows up in the rest of Le Guin's world-building as well, and is the foundation of a fictional time science that leads to the invention of a faster-than-light communication device, the ansible, in her other famous book, The Dispossessed.
Along with Philip K. Dick, Le Guin should probably be credited with originating the literary understanding of atemporality, which has since been further developed by Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and other more recent science fiction writers.
The nice thing about the Year One time orientation is that it works at multiple time resolutions to create an expansive sense of deeply grounded freedom, situated in reality. It's sort of like being free because you're equally subject to the gravitational pull of the future and the past, which are in a delicate balance in the present.
Or if you prefer, it's like being in the eye of the time storm, and moving with it. I like this imagery better than the gravity one because it gets at the idea of time as a kind of contentful material flux, and also motivates richer, more interesting visualizations (time travel visualizations in science fiction television/movies seem to favor a sort of churning flux-tunnel of the sort I've tried to sketch above).
But whatever your chosen visualization, the key is to experience time as a phenomenal mass with a harmonies and textures to it, rather than as a geometric emptiness. What the philosopher Henri Bergson called an élan vital. It is a fascinating concept that is often misunderstood as naive vitalism, thanks in part to the unfortunate legacy of the Einstein-Bergson debates, and the resulting unnecessary zero-sum philosophical game between physics time and subjective time.
But I digress, back to the practical uses of a Year One orientation.
The Lindy Effect is a statistical formalization of the intuitive understanding of élan vital: things can be expected to persist as far into the future as they already have in the past. An existing thing that has something like a coherent identity or intrinsic nature (such as a living thing or nation or anything with some sort of homeostasis or autopoiesis process characterizing its evolution) can be thought of as an unbroken stream of élan vital extending into the past and future. Instead of the time-travel concept of a timeline, think of an I-line or us-line, and visualize it as an unbroken fluid flow with boundaries in both space and time. Things that have this property become measures of felt time.
By the Lindy effect, if you've already lived to be 25, you can expect to live to at least 50. If settled, urban civilization has already existed for 6000 years, it can be expected to exist for another 6000. The idea that the "future is like the past" (an assumption in many kinds of statistical modeling and machine learning) is a dangerous one, but the idea that the future will be as long and as contentful as the past (in some materially-symmetric subjectively felt élan vital sense) is a more robust one.
You can think of both the Year One orientation and the Lindy effect as describing a "middle of history" mental model. History in a particular understanding of the term may have ended in 1989 as Francis Fukuyama has persuasively argued, but history, more generally understood, can be expected to continue for as long as it already has, with roughly the same élan vital texture.
Of course, you have to make appropriate modifications. If you're already 70 years old, you're almost certainly not going to live to be 140 years old. There is a nonzero chance that history could end next year due to a wormhole suddenly opening up near us and swallowing up the Earth. Or maybe a supervirus plague will make urban life as we know it impossible, and toss us back into hunter-gatherer small-band life.
I find it useful to apply the Year One heuristic to my own life. I was born in 43 BN (Before Now), and can expect to live to Year 43 AN (After Now) if I am reasonably lucky. But I am probably at the limit of being centered in my own individual life. In future Years One, I have to take the ensemble statistical experience of humanity into account, and accept that it's quite unlikely that I'll live past 90.
But I can still find temporal balance/centeredness by thinking in terms of a shared experience of time that is centered at Year One. For instance, when I'm 60 (in the year 17 AN), I can think in terms of my own past extending to the year 60 BN, but also in terms of my young nephew's future, which will likely extend to 60 AN at that time.
Zooming out further, the United States has existed as an independent nation since 242 BN, and will likely continue to exist till 242 AN in some culturally recognizable form. So when I'm catching up on politics and culture war news, it is calming and centering to treat all of it as being events from the middle of American history. A lot of shit has gone down. A lot more shit will go down. So yes, while it is alarming to read, today, that notorious warmonger John Bolton has been appointed national security advisor, thinking of it as a Year One event in the history of the US is a way to contemplate the development without either being wracked by anxieties about it, or retreating in denial from the reality of it.
The trick to using the Year One heuristic is to figure out what the current Year One is the center of, temporally speaking. It's not just a number. It's the center of mass of some sort of stream of consciousness extending with coherence and continuity into the past and future. That thing then, becomes your measure of time at that scale. To connect your personal élan vital to that of that bigger thing is to be time-centered at that scale.
You can use your own consciousness as the measure of Year One time up to about 100 years.
Between 100 to about 500 years, you have to link your consciousness of time to that of a people or nation in order to be able to sense it at all. Between 500 to about 4000 years, you need to plug into a civilizational consciousness. Between 4000 to 100,000 years, into a species consciousness.
Beyond 100,000 years, you have to find a way to plug into deep time somehow: a sense of connection to all life. Or to the geology of Earth. Or solar physics.
Beyond about 4 billion years, you have to reach out with your mind to some sort of cosmic consciousness. That is religion territory for a lot of people, but for me, it's just astronomy. Just look up into the night sky.
Insert galactic brain meme joke here.
I'm serious about this stuff though. We are bad at finding, and remaining in, our time center. The number 2018 is meaningless unless you're a devout Christian, but the number 1 is meaningful for all of us. A Year One orientation is of practical value. But we're becoming better at this, as projects like the 10,000 year Long Now clock demonstrate. We're starting to prioritize time-centeredness.
Stay present, not just in the present, but in all time, at all scales, by staying in the eye of the time storm. If you want to get more fine-grained about it, treat the vernal equinox as your New Year's instant, the zero on the time line (this is what many traditional calendars, including Indian and Persian, do). That way, you'll never be more than 1 year away from zero moment.
Anyhow, since vernal equinox was a couple of days ago, here's wishing you a Happy Year 1, and have a good Weekend 1.
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