Dear Reader [Including those of you who gave their last full measure of devotion in the War on Christmas and those unsung heroes of the forgotten War to Save Thanksgiving],
I’m writing this from a park bench right by the royal palace in Madrid. The little concrete and brown dirt plaza I’m sitting in is apparently a make-do dog park, which is nice because I miss my canine quadrupeds quite a bit. The dogs are centered around a statue of a soldier. If I weren’t in Spain, I’d assume it was a member of the French foreign legion. But that would be odd. I’ll get up and read the plaque in a bit and let you know what it is.
That’s the funny thing about this kind of writing. I can get up, find out what the statue is about, go back and delete a couple sentences and make it seem like I knew what the statue was all along. But the whole point of this “news”letter is that it’s supposed to be stream of consciousness (okay, maybe not the whole point, but certainly a defining feature, like the nudity and Aramaic puns). The “news”—often silent—is in quotation marks, not the letter.
If I were writing in a journal with ink, I couldn’t go back and amend the sentence without creating a mess of cross-outs. But with a computer, you can sort of go back in time and clean up your mistakes, leaving the reader none the wiser. Of course, you could achieve the same effect with paper and ink, too. It would just require a lot more effort; writing a messy draft or two and then rewriting a final clean version in which the stream-of-consciousness seems more real by being more fake.
What’s that sound? Oh no. It’s an alarm. You’ve stumbled into a metaphor, which once made explicit will be forever turned into a simile, or perhaps an analogy.
Out of time.
Earlier this week, I had a wild idea for my Los Angeles Times column, one that turned out too wild for 750 words. Or at least my editor thought so. She was probably right. So I bagged it and wrote this one instead.
It was a weird column, because I intended to do a decade-in-review column and then someone on Twitter pointed me to this brilliant essay, “The 2010s Have Broken Our Sense of Time,” by Buzzfeed’s Katherine Miller. It got in my head like Buddy the Elf in the Empire State Building’s elevator, lighting up all the buttons.
It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about how we live in an age of disruption. But that’s only because it’s true. The usual examples are familiar enough: Uber, iPhones, streaming videos, robots, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, internet this, digital that, social media the other thing. But Miller pointed out, in a way I hadn’t really thought through, a major theme to the pudding.
Time seems to be losing its grip on us, or rather we seem to be losing our grip on it. Technology may be the great disruptor of our age, but the disruption can be measured in more than the changing nature of the means of production. More and more, time is like a middle man we want to cut out. Amazon’s same-day delivery may be killing retail, but it’s also making us think of time as a major part of prices. It always was, of course. But in so many ways, it’s never been as negotiable.
Miller points out that, “within a few months in 2016, both the primary catalog for millions of lives (Instagram) and the primary channel for news and culture (Twitter) switched from chronological to algorithmic timelines.” These algorithms rank the events in our “timelines” not by chronological sequence, but by presumed emotional importance. Every few days, I must wrestle my Twitter account out of this algorithm, because Twitter insists it has a better idea of what is good for me. I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if Twitter were 100 years old. Would I wake up in the morning to see a tweet by Winston Churchill DESTROYING Neville Chamberlain? Who cares if it was so long ago; Chamberlain’s tears are so delicious.
And because we live so much of our lives through our phones and similar gadgets, we are pulled through our handheld Narnian wardrobes into a place of increasingly personally curated time. The disappearance of appointment television (with the exception of live sporting events) is one obvious example. We used to carve out time for the unmovable moments in our common culture. Now, those moments come to us, on our schedule.
You can find one obvious sign of the transformation at a concert or perhaps your kids’ school play. Now, people experience the event through the screens on their phones to make sure it’s captured for all time in a little portable flask of meaning, one they can sip from when psychologically thirsty for a little emotional inebriation. Not being fully present in the moment is the Faustian price we pay to make such moments permanently accessible. But we also ornamentalize our “moments,” posting them for others to see, and perhaps envy, like jewels of time others can’t afford. (This phenomenon probably explains the current obsession with income inequality more than the distribution of per capita income.)
Time is on my side, yes it is.
We tend to define our differences as cultural ones. And that’s fine. But culture is sometimes the way we describe differences in time. Almost 30 years ago, I was on a train station in Belgrade. I was transferring trains for an adventurous trip to Istanbul from Prague. I had a few hours to kill and I walked around. I saw men in uniforms that looked like they were from the costume department of Doctor Zhivago. I remember seeing a man with a bandaged headwound smoking a cigarette. We were about the same age. But I couldn’t help but think we weren’t just from different places and cultures, but from different eras. He still lived in a time when killing people for not wanting to be part of your country not only made sense, but was a moral obligation. I imagine if I were to ever meet someone from one of those tribes still living in the jungles of the Amazon that the feeling would be even more acute.
Progress is a thorny topic. But an essential part of it is the idea that wisdom and knowledge accumulate over time. Perhaps our loss of confidence in progress—evident in our exhaustion with once-settled ideas and commitments—is attached to our loss of a sense of time?
I’ve written a bunch about how what we do now can change the past, not literally, but in terms of how we think about it. For the first half of my life, the most important dates of the 20th century were either 1914 or 1917. The former was the year Gavrilo Princip opened Pandora’s box and the first World War sprung forth, smashing the old order. The latter, the Russian Revolution, is impossible without the events of the former: 1914 begat 1917. But wherever you hear the starter’s pistol, the defining events of the 20th century spilled out: the implosion of Weimar Germany, the rise and fall of Nazism, fascism, the rise of the United Nations, NATO, the Cold War and all the little hot wars fought in its name.
But in 2001, after a brief “holiday from history” as my friend Charles Krauthammer put it, the September 11 attacks suddenly made 1914, 1917, and all that seem less important, and 1923 (when the Ottoman Empire disappeared) and 1932 (when the Wahhabis took control of Saudi Arabia) seem like the inflection points of the previous century we all failed to appreciate.
The apparent rise of jihadism was fresh evidence that the mere passage of time does not bury old ideas. Rather, it allows them to ripen beneath the surface, like Lovecraftian titans waiting to be called forth when the moment is right.
The importance of those dates wasn’t just marked by battles, gravestones, and political systems, but by the ideas that drove people to kill and die for some larger cause in the name of some collective idea of progress. The conflicts were real, but they were largely shared by across or between societies.
That sense that we were all living in roughly the same timeline is gone, replaced by a tribalism that is defined as much by competing senses of time as competing ideas. Everywhere you look, cultural combatants are ransacking the past to rewrite the present.
The New York Times, with perverse irony, has responded to literally centuries of once-unimaginable racial progress with the idea that 1776 and 1789 are no longer the most obvious birthdates of the United States of America. Instead, 1619, the year when 20 or so African slaves were deposited on our shores, is now the moment of our creation and we remain frozen in its shadow. It’s an arbitrary choice (there had been Africans in the New World before then), chosen out of an aesthetic desire to mark the 500th anniversary of our “founding.” It’s also a ludicrous argument, deployed to undermine or discredit objective measures of progress. No one not already in possession of—or possessed by—an ideological conclusion about the way we live now would reverse-engineer the last five centuries to reinvent the past in this way.
Donald Trump ran for president on the phrase “America First,” by his own admission ignorant of its meaning and historical context, vowing to return us to an imagined time of greatness. That’s all it took for an idea presumed dead to come back to life.
Nationalism, too, was once one of the Old Ones thought to be in permanent slumber. Its time has come again. It’s like members of the cult of Zuul, Baal, or Ra have been living among us in modern mufti, waiting for the right moment to awake their chosen god. We took a wrong turn with the Enlightenment or the Founding, they believe, and the time has come to get us back on the right path.
Further out on the fringe, not necessarily at Trump’s bidding but often on his behalf, other Old Ones have roused themselves, loosing even darker eldritch ideas and forces, happy to play the demons in the 1619 eschatology. Youthful idiots have exhumed Nazi kitsch and proclaimed it “real conservatism.”
And of course, socialism, never fully put to rest, has been rejuvenated, not by new facts but by a recommitment to an old faith. Socialism is the economics of the caveman, or rather that imagined caveman we have called the noble savage (credit Jean-Jacques Rousseau for the idea, though he never actually used the term). All share equally in the provisions of the tribe, because all contribute equally. Never mind that this was never true of actual cavemen—if those who study such things are to be believed. The strong ate first and ate best. Those who could not carry their share of the burden were left behind or killed. Still, there was much more economic equality back then, but only because all were poor and possessions amounted to what you could carry. Our brains have a sweet tooth for such arrangements though, because the socialistic rules of cooperation are what allowed our species to survive in a world where mere survival was the name of the game. This is why socialism must be argued away in every generation. Every human today begins life with the same programming we had before the rules of the game improved.
Improvement is another word for progress, rightly understood. But we take the improvements for granted, thinking we can keep the good stuff we have now, all the while ransacking the past for narratives we think we can adopt like some retro fashion we can make stylish once again.
Chronology used to be understood as an actual science, the science of ordering things in temporal sequence. But now we know the word only as a label for a list of such things. Chronology has lost its attachment to science in the popular imagination--and what is science other than the technique of accumulating knowledge about the world? We live by an algorithm now, one that prioritizes emotional meaning above mere chronological advance. Time is not a flat circle, but we are treating it like one. It’s like a giant buffet of moments we can choose from, a series of top tweets brought forth by an algorithm that lets us help ourselves to whatever ideas we have the appetite for, heedless of the fact that those moments have come and gone, and the ideas that gave them power have been discredited or simply bled of context by the passage of time.
I’m no longer in that park by the royal palace, but thanks to the miracle of digital living, I can now go back to find out the name of that statue. But that would change the moment, and you can’t go back again.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: We are getting regular reports on the critters from our dog/cat/house sitter, Matt. They have his number (though Pippa apparently has trouble with Risk management). Matt even took the girls to his folks’ place in Virginia, where Zoë behaved herself and Pippa was the target of Chief’s affections. And so long as the two of them are together, I don’t think they get all that stressed. Still, I can’t wait for the Welcoming Committee.
And now, the weird stuff.
Photograph of fans watching Imagine Dragons at Lollapalooza through their phones by Santiago Bluguermann/Getty Images.