|Venkatesh Rao||May 18, 2018|
Sorry for dropping out of sight unannounced for four weeks. Thanks to staging work on multiple longer projects, a vacation and two conference trips, my ability to stick to a writing schedule imploded. If it weren't for the fact that I've been awake from jet lag since 2 AM here in Newcastle, UK, there'd have been no newsletter this week either. Before I forget, I may have time in London on Sunday evening to pull together a late drinks meetup nearish Kings Cross. Lemme know if you'd want to join if that happens. I'll be taking a TBD train back from the Northeast in the late afternoon, so the schedule is a bit up in the air.
Back in the day, I used to be OCD enough about sticking to a publishing schedule that I'd queue up posts or newsletter issues in anticipation of calendar traffic jams. I also had enough surplus creative energy to actually produce several decent pieces in a single burst of work. But these days, I find that if I do that, I tend to pump out dreck. I figure you'd rather read good stuff on an uncertain schedule than phoned-in dreck on a predictable one. I certainly prefer that as a producer. One of the practical tricks I've picked up from Warren Ellis' newsletter is consciously managing my creative energy by occasionally letting things drop, rather than going through the motions for no good reason. As a writer, your élan vital is your most precioussss resource, and nothing kills it as surely as a packed external schedule of events, but trying to force it just creates zombie output with no élan vital.
It's actually been quite a while since the last time I was this calendar-busy, with so little short-term output to show for it. My preferred mode is calendar zero, with an output horizon of about a week. I'm an internal clock kinda guy. But sometimes, plans are what happen to you when you're busy trying to make other lives.
Anyhow speaking of clocks, internal and external, let me share 2 slides, one from my talk at Thinking Digital here in Newcastle yesterday, and one from my talk at Refactor Camp in Austin last weekend. Both talks were about aspects of modern temporality (slides/video should show up at the first link in a week or so, and are already available at the second).
Here's my slide from Thinking Digital:
Kairos and Chronos through the last century.
It traces the yin-yang (or rather, yang-yin) evolution of chronos and kairos over the last century. Those are the Greek words/gods for objective, external, deterministic, fatalistic clock time, and subjective, internal, indeterminate agency time.
The symbolism in the mythology is fun. Chronos is usually symbolized with a scythe (the modern Father Time/Death is descended from the Greek Chronos). That's time as in deadlines. The stuff on your calendar that stresses the hell out of you and makes you miss newsletter issues. Kairos on the other hand, is usually represented by a pair of scales. That nicely represents time in the sense of "opportune moment", with connotations such as things hanging in the balance, there being a balance of risk and opportunity, and seasons of good and bad luck. You could say that Kairos personifies life, opportunity, and serendipity, just as Chronos represents the inescapable finality and reality of death.
The two aspects of time though, aren't entirely decoupled. This was driven home powerfully by a talk I saw yesterday at TDC, by artist Moon Ribas. She has vibration actuators, driven by seismic data from around the world, implanted in her calves. This allows her to feel seismic activity as a new, synthetic internal sense (she said it feels like having a second heartbeat). Ribas uses the sensors to put on dance performances, real-earth-time interpretive dances based on what she's feeling. She said something very insightful: becoming a cyborg makes her feel closer to nature, not closer to machines. Certainly, she puts new meaning into the mythological figure of an Earth Mother, which occurs in several cultures.
The idea of adding a new sense to your body, especially one that's a new kind of internal clock, really blurs the distinction between chronos and kairos. I don't particularly want to be a seismic Earth Mother myself, but imagine being attuned to other sorts of external processes. Altering the information environment/base layer of your cognition viscerally, through implants that pipe new sensory realities directly into your subsymbolic brain.
Some that occurred to me: turning Twitter sentiment data into physical sensations; turning live Google searching activity into say a skin-suit spidey-sense tingling. This stuff is already possible. Further down the road are things like creating on/off sleep switches for your brain using neural implants (this was another talk by Yang Dan, who has shown this possibility in rats). You can also get social, creating people-to-people links (a concept explored in the science fiction works of Ramez Naam and John Scalzi among others). The low-hanging fruit here is of course restoring normal human capabilities to disabled or injured people, but things get real interesting when you try to add entirely new modes of being to healthy people.
It used to be that there were sharp distinctions between internal and external clocks, kairos and chronos, individual time and social time, sensed time and read time. The very coherence of our identities and streams of consciousness rests on such distinctions. What happens when you mess with this stuff? Well, if you do it badly, obviously all sorts of ugly things could happen, but what if you did it well?
You'd get what I think of as stream time. Where your consciousness and subjective identity get their coherence from an augmented sensory body. Perhaps your consciousness is not co-extensive with your body (proprioception) but instead is grounded in some harmonious assemblage of your own sensory capabilities, some electic mix of spidey-senses, and some function of the biophysical states of close friends. Moon Ribas showed off several such "consciousness concepts" so to speak, that she's exploring with collaborators.
The main challenge here, the difference between a symphony and a cacophony, is learning to engineer subjective time so that the stream of consciousness stays coherent, and kairos evolves in a way a human consciousness can process. This brings us to my second picture in this newsletter, which I made for my Refactor Camp talk:
The picture attempts to visualize distinctions among various sorts of time. In the middle is "normal" time, with a locked-down past and a free/open future. Above it is a slightly improved relativistic understanding of time, with causality being related to temporality within a light cone: but it's still "done" past events influencing TBD future events. In both normal and relativistic notions of time, the present is a sort of key that progressively locks up the future as it turns into the past, cleverly finessing free-will debates while turning future possible worlds into past counterfactual worlds..
At the bottom is Bergsonian time. This is an altogether different beast. Think of it as being more like a memory-bookkeeping understanding of time that puts subjective time ahead of objective time, kairos ahead of chronos. The past is not necessarily fully locked down, and the future is not necessarily fully open. Unpaid bills/invoices and active contracts that constrain the future are more hard-edged examples of what I mean. In experienced time, the past, present, and future interact in the form of complex settling memories within which promises, debts, commitments, and intentions all evolve together, sort of like a blockchain. The present is already memory as it is being experienced, and if there are keys, they are spread out across a window of active, unsettled events with potentialities. Perhaps a better term for Bergsonian time is an abstract sort of roiling potential energy.
Bergsonian time is, to a first approximation, blockchain time. The idea was the basis of my talk at Refactor Camp, where I presented a sort of speculative design-fiction blockchain concept called Blood Coin (inspired by the structure of blood-debt economics).
Why am I talking about this? Because I think the right kind of time consciousness to underpin weird new streams of consciousness spanning multiple human and artificial parts is some weird mashup or normal and Bergsonian time. A flow. A stream, in the sense of both stream of consciousness and twitter. An informational being-becoming process. An artificially embodied _élan vital. _
You've probably heard me use the term élan vital a few times in previous newsletters. The much-derided and misunderstood concept, due to Bergson, is often dismissed as some sort of anti-scientific vitalism designed as a thought stopper by a sour French intellectual. At best, it is understood as some sort of okay-for-artists-but-not-science humanist conception of subjectivity. Both assessments are wildly off the mark.
The perception is due to the complicated legacy of the 1922 Einstein-Bergson debate. An excellent book I'm currently reading, The Physicist and the Philosopher, provides a thoughtful account of what actually happened, why it caused such hostility all around, and the continuing impact of the debate. It could be argued that Einstein, for all his mastery of physics-time, was the one trying to stop thought devoted to demystifying the mysteries of subjective, experienced time, insisting, famously, that "the time of the philosophers does not exist," a statement that is to physics what B. F. Skinner's behaviorist insistence on reducing everything to stimulus and response is to psychology.
Bergson's ideas of time were shaped largely by the introspective structure of felt consciousness, the dynamics of memory formation, and the interplay of novelty, agency, and cognition. Far from being a thought stopper, Bergson's ideas unleashed a furious flood of imaginative philosophical and literary production. His influence led directly to the literary genre we know as stream of consciousness, via pioneers such as Virginia Woolf, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust and others. His reputation in science never quite recovered from the body blow of the Einstein debate. But it did enjoy a measure of redemption, as the evolution of quantum mechanics and information theory in the second half of the 20th century led to renewed interest in the subjective aspect of time. An aspect that he tried to tackle perhaps a century too early.
Anyhow, the point of this long rambling newsletter is that we're entering an era of stream time, where we can each craft our own realities, creating what I call a landscape of multitemporality. Alt facts for everybody!
The reason I'm working on this stuff and trying to use talks to work out some of the tricky bits is that I'm trying to get another book project going. Yeah yeah, I know, I already wrote a book about time (Tempo, in case you didn't know), but I feel another one brewing in the élan vital. My spidey senses are tingling and my zeitgeist-sensing implant is telling me the kairos is right for such a book_. _This one's going to be different, all about subjective time and how you can program reality to manipulate your stream of consciousness. I'm kinda excited about it because it would sort of pull together a few key current themes of Breaking Smart and Ribbonfarm, as well as further development on some of the most intriguing threads I uncovered, but did not develop, in Tempo. We'll see how it goes.
And yeah yeah, I haven't forgotten from Season 2 essays. That's still happening too. Time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once, as physicist A. J. Wheeler famously said (quoting the 20s sci-fi writer Ray Cummings, via some bathroom graffiti, though he didn't know it). I'm just one guy here trying to run a media empire, so until we can figure out how to neuro-wire some of you into my head to help out, things are going to happen slowly as I muddle through my multithreaded to-do process list.
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