Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Further Annihilation of Time and Space

Many people have written about the topic, that because of technology changing culture, we experience time and space differently than our grandparents.  Here is a review of Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows that is a nice continuation of the topic. But it's not a new idea.  Marx tried to cram it onto a critique of capitalism ( he is more muddled than wrong on the topic). The western explorrers were amazed at how the transcontinental railroad brought distant areas together, and the photograph, telegraph, and telephone amazed the late 19th C in the changes it seemed to bring upon everyone.

It has an even longer history. Riding horse and putting wheels on carts, both about 4,000 BC put longer distances in reach, and before that, sails allowed wide reach on the waters. Writing was originally mostly record-keeping or statements to the gods not to men, but eventually it allowed us to speak across time and distance in ways that had not previously been available to humans. The printing press accelerated this.

When I was young there was constant worry about the social abilities of those who had their head in a book all the time. While this was mostly misplaced, there was something to it. Parents and teachers have further worried that movies or radio or TV would do the same thing.  It has been the long history of humankind.  Where once we spent our entire lives familiar with - or even aware of - only a few people and a radius of a few miles, todays children have instant contact with hundreds or even thousands of people, many of whom live far away and they have not seen in the flesh for years.  My second son has over a thousand Facebook friends.  While that requires a different definition of friends from even a generation ago, it is not simply ridiculous.

If you went to a few schools and keep even a FB level of contact with them, you might have a hundred right there. They were actual friends in a previous year and you still know something about them today. FB encourages you to expand rather than contract ther number of relatives you keep.  Each job, or church, or hobby, or neighborhood brings in a few more. If you work in youth ministry or in a field which has a high turnover of "customers," then you keep adding more than you lose every year.  One may scoff that those are not real friends, but that criticism could have been put forward in every century. My contacts are wider than my parents' and my awareness of events around the world is greater, more part of my culture.  Their contacts were much wider than their own parents. After the printing press, a reader might know about many more people and places than his parents had been.  That contact was certainly more attenuated, more abstract, and more intermitttent than what his parents would consider a friendship, but it was real.

Photography stopped time, and movies reanimated it, but under human control.

Imagine for a moment how many people and what distance a young woman would have been aware of in her entire life in a small city in 1300. EB White shook his head that a man in Manhattan might move 10,000 sheep from one place to another on paper every day without ever seeing an actual sheep.  He believed that the ability to drive ten miles so quickly, when it was a fair hike on foot, destroyed a boy's sense of space.  Even forty years ago I was amazed a t a co-worker who was bringing a gun on a hiking trip because "Haven't you seen Deliverance?" She had no knowledge whether the area she was going to was actually dangerous.  The movie was more real.  That removal from the real, while the breadth of contact has expanded, has grown each decade. Two years after "The Truman Show" what we ironically call reality television started.  So, this is what passes for reality these days? Fans wept after "Avatar" came out because they could not actually go to that world, and they felt that deeply unfair. Well don't worry, that day is coming - if "The Matrix" turns out to be true.  I shouldn't criticise. In the summer of 1973 I stood in a field in Massachusetts and was heartbroken that there was no direction I could go that would take me to Middle-Earth, and almost sixty years earlier CS Lewis had similar feelings about wanting to go to Northern Realms where Balder might still be found.

The explosive cultural change from the internet is not new, it is simply a continuation.  Young people on their devices have less and less contact with real people, but partial or fragmentary contact with an unimaginably large group of people. They do travel more, but the real annihilation of distance is the contact with others a dozen or a thousand miles away, easily and daily. The annihilation of time is that things are recorded, kept, and replayed. It was not long ago that only memory preserved the past. Now we can just look it up and watch it again.

My guess is that the increasing mistakes in perception by young people - their willingness to believe things about others that a few more minutes a day of regular contact with real people, real time, and real distance would dispel - descends directly from this further step of increasing abstraction, increasing image versus live, increasing PR-packaged nature of reality.  Of course they believe they shouldn't have to listen to views they don't want to.  With electronics one can just turn things off and switch to something else.  In a real neighborhood you have less ability to escape.  In an old school lunchroom you had less ability to censor what you heard. They wanty to apply the rules of their electronic reality back onto their physical reality.  It's unsurprising and quite natural when you stop to think about it.

It's also not going to reverse and it's not going to go away. Since the discovery that water and food and even fire could be carried in large leaves, by hand, allowing greater tribal mobility, the ratchet has only moved in one direction. This is the new world, and the immersion in virtual reality - even as evidence mounts that this change is too fast for human culture to maintain important bonds - is going to keep increasing. The youjng can't help it, because they are young and impulsive and unable to control the technologies we have built and put in their hands.  Conservatives are great deplorers of such developments - conservatives are great deplorers in general - but that won't change things. They may say that children should be made to put down their devices and spend time with real people many more hours a week, but few families and few subcultures are going to do it.


Sam L. said...

It's not what they know, it's how much they DON'T know, and how much misinformation they've gathered over time.

dmoelling said...

It's more than just an addiction to instant response. My young engineers have no feel for the physical world and want to jump on the computer to solve issues they should understand intuitively. Of course they have no sense of direction without a GPS (that includes north, south, east and west even if the sun's up!)

I read an story about a medical school professor of Surgery in the UK who said his new students had a real shortcoming in their tactile skills. He said they didn't handle and build enough things as kids so their dexterity is poor.

james said...

The generation before mine designed, built, and analyzed their own experiments. My generation didn't do much design, but I spent quite a bit of time building detectors that were part of a bigger system. The next generation spent less time building, but still some. The current generation does virtually no design or building, just simulation and analysis.

james said...

At what point does the speed start to become too much for us (adaptable but finite) humans to adjust to?

engineerlite said...

There is an interesting extension of the consequences of this trend, where a blog author analyzes some of the information supposedly coming out of the 737 MAX crashes, and relates them to failures in the design and quality processes. The article is on Chicago Boys, posted on March 24 by Trent Telenko. I can't forward the source article, as it came from the NYT, and I won't propagate gossip. However, the comments, both to the NYT article, and to Trent's blog, appear to come from real live engineers, and are both enlightening, and scary for their implications.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I wonder the same things. I hope I did not come across as entirely of the thinking "It was ever thus, nothing to worry about here." One of the first examples Nicholas Nassim Taleb used in one of his books - I think The Black Swan, was of people in Lebanon, including some of his family, believing that their departure to Cyprus was going to be only temporary, because these political eruptions had been happening for a thousand years and always died down. They are still in Cyprus.

Map reading is more for specialists now - and this in an era where the abundance of maps is unimaginable to those of us who used to have to search for them and constantly adjust between scales. It is a common movie and TV idea that they have to bring some grouchy old guy out of retirement because he's the only one who knows how to run the Unilateral Phase Detractors (, and that theme of remembering lost knowledge is a recurring one. Perhaps we are just whistling down the wind, convincing ourselves that we are still useful. Damn kids these days don't know how to shoe a horse.

Yet James's question does actually haunt me: "At what point...?"

Texan99 said...

I told a friend in the late 70s I planned to take a canoe trip on the Buffalo River. He expressed concern: hadn't I seen "Deliverance"? He actually believed that movie was an accurate picture of what it was like to go camping in deep rural Arkansas. He had no concern at all about living in Houston. No movies about Houston, I guess.

I wanted very badly to be able to get into both Middle Earth and Narnia.