Whose Time? Which Temporality?
The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 4
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. Welcome, especially, to recent subscribers. I’m not sure what you all are expecting, but the focus and approach can vary a bit from one installment to the other. I think, though, that if you hang around for a while, a relatively consistent set of questions, as well as an approach to thinking about them, will be evident enough. In any case, today you have a brief and loosely structured meditation on dusk, darkness, rhythms, and well-being. As always, I hope it is helpful. In the wings is a post titled “AI Apocalypse,” premised on the idea that AI is apocalyptic in the literal sense: it is not causing, but rather revealing the end of a world. Also on tap are some further reflections on language under digital conditions. Cheers!
My special thanks to Anna Cabrera and Ángel Albarrán, the artists who generously granted me permission to use the image that accompanies this essay. It immediately captivated me, and I thought it would be, in its tones and composition, a fitting complement to the themes I explore here. Consider yourself duly encouraged to visit their site and explore their work. Gracias, Anna y Ángel!
“It is at Dusk that the most interesting things occur, for that is when simple differences fade away. I could live in everlasting Dusk.”
— Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
1. Several months ago I was taking a walk with my daughters through one of the paths around our home. I live in the suburbs of a small city, but I’m fortunate to be in a relatively wooded area and to have a number of short paths and trails to walk. On this occasion, we were heading back home just as the sun was dropping below the horizon. The first thing I noticed in those moments was not the sunset itself; the canopy of trees made that impossible to see. Nor was it how the quality of the soundscape became pleasantly muted and noise-absorbent. Instead, the first thing I noticed was that my shoulders relaxed as if in response to some subtle cue which escaped my conscious attention but which my body nonetheless perceived. Only then did I realize how tense my muscles had been and how much stress I was carrying around with me.
This moment has lingered with me in the months since. I’ve kept thinking about how my body responded to the gradually diminishing light and how rare such an experience of a measured, unhurried transition had become. Ordinarily, I would pass from the glaring light of the sun during the day to the glaring light of the electric lamp during the evening. Then, when it came time to sleep, the flip of a switch would abruptly take me from light to dark, excepting perhaps the harsh glow of the backlit screen. No gradual transition, no soft, fading light to modulate my stress levels, relax my muscles, and prime me for a night of rest.
If we are perpetually anxious, depleted, and exhausted, perhaps this was one of the reasons why. The impulse to banish the darkness has had the unintended consequence of creating an artificial environment whose rhythms are not calibrated for human health and well-being. Of course, that the human-built world is not built for humans is a recurring theme around here, but it seems to me that this particular aspect of the problem tends to escape our notice even though there is mounting evidence that artificial illumination has significant deleterious consequences not only for human beings but perhaps even more so for other animals.
This thread by astrophysicist Alejandro Sánchez collects a number of studies aimed at understanding some of those deleterious consequences—I was particularly struck by the purported link between light at night (LAN) and certain cancers—but I’m going to set off on some slightly different paths, reflecting on passages, rhythms, and the temporal orders which structure our lives.
“… from candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.”
— Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
2. If I think about the character of contemporary life taken whole, the loss of gradual passages strikes me as a more general condition of which the loss of the experience of dusk is but one instance. It is possible, for example, to lament the conquest of the night and what that might entail, but my focus here is not merely on the loss of deep darkness. Rather, my thinking began with the absence of transitions that are rhythmic and gradual rather than sudden and arbitrary. As I’ve thought about this, this may just be a function of a society ordered by precision time-keeping.
Consider, for example, the difference between social gatherings arranged by the clock and those which are not. It is the difference between being on time and knowing when the time is right. When does a gathering of friends begin? Does it begin at 6:00 p.m., or does it begin when everyone is present, meaning both there in body and also in spirit. I understand, of course, that in order to organize such gatherings there must be some general agreement on timing. But it seems to matter a great deal to the nature of the experience whether one is waiting for the arrival of an arbitrary moment in a succession of indistinguishable moments or whether one is waiting for a moment that answers to qualitative conditions. It is the ubiquity of precision time-keeping that makes it possible to imagine an activity beginning when one second of time gives way to another and concluding when a later second in time yields to the next. In this way, our default mode of time-keeping generates a temporal order that is stacked against a mode of life in which activities begin and end when the time is right.
Perhaps we can go a bit further. The word stochastic is one of the key words of our cultural moment. Perhaps this is a function of the peculiar shape of my own streams of information, but this adjective has appeared with increasing frequency over the last few years to describe a variety of phenomena. Most recently it has appeared in the phrase “stochastic parrots,” a popular way of critically describing large language models. “Stochastic terrorism” is another phrase that has been frequently invoked in recent years. You may be able to supply your own examples.
The term has heretofore been most commonly invoked in the technical literature of various disciplines. It describes, simply enough, something that is randomly occurring or, in an older formulation, occurring without rhyme or reason. Maybe the fact that this term has seeped into popular discourse tells us something of consequence. Perhaps it discloses an inchoate apprehension about the character of contemporary society: ours is a stochastic age. Very little is predictable, consistent, regular, or rhythmic. More of our experience seems contingent, beyond our capacity to manage, subject to irregular patterns.
I’m tempted, as I often am, by the grand generalization, and I will yield. Pre-industrial culture was synchronized by the rhythms of nature, rhythms which were often imbued with sacral significance (a unity suggested by the shared root of cult, culture, and cultivate). Industrial culture was, as Lewis Mumford observed, driven not by the steam-engine but by the clock. Industrial time overthrew pre-industrial time—agricultural time, if you like—but yielded a new set of rhythms and patterns, with the 9-5 workday perhaps at its heart. Mass media, which is to say industrialized media, supplied its own public temporalities to the industrial age, a new quasi-sacral calendar with daily, seasonal, and yearly rituals, some of which were artificial simulations of the old pre-industrial rituals.
What we have now is a new temporal order. It is not a negation of industrial time, but a further development built upon the precision of mechanical time. Industrial time enabled the mass synchronizations industrial culture required. But now digital technology enables a new desynchronized society through even more refined timekeeping coupled with the computational capacity to mobilize and organize society along more fluid, just-in-time, and, yes, from a human perspective, stochastic patterns.
To put this another way, a culture ordered in its patterns, language, ethics, and imagination by the rhythms of the natural world gave way to a culture ordered in its patterns, language, ethics, and imagination by the rhythms of industrialized labor and mass media. While we might disagree as to the timing of the transition, it seems safe to say that we now inhabit yet another cultural configuration. To put it this way may seem like a banal restatement of the well-worn and contested pre-modern/modern/post-modern sequence. But I think it is useful to draw out the temporal dimension of these social dynamics. If we press into each of these four categories—patterns, language, ethics, and imagination—we will find surprising and profound links to the temporal heart beating out the dominant cultural rhythms, whether it be nature or the machine.
So how then do we understand the temporal heart beating out the rhythm of digital culture? I’d hazard the following thesis for disputation: digital culture is defined precisely by the fact that it exhibits no discernible temporal rhythm, and many of our social disorders, from the deprivations of private life to the disintegration of public life and the apparent stagnation of culture, stem from this fact.
“On an infinite line of uniform numbered moments, however, the very notion of a ‘right’ time becomes wholly unintelligible.”
— Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars
3. As I continued to think about the passage from day to night, I recalled the work of the Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák (1933-2020). I’ve found Kohák’s The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Moral Sense of Nature to be a wise, moving, and yet wholly unsentimental attempt to understand the consequences of our alienation from nature in the context of Western modernity.1
Writing in the 1980s, Kohák observed that “the world of artifacts and constructs with which we have surrounded ourselves knows neither a law nor a rhythm: in its context, even rising and resting come to seem arbitrary.”
“We ourselves have constructed that world for our dwelling place,” Kohák acknowledges, “replacing rude nature with the artifices of technē, yet increasingly we confess ourselves bewildered strangers within it, ‘alienated,’ ‘contingently thrown’ into its anonymous machinery, and tempted to abolish the conflict between our meaningful humanity and our mechanical life-world by convincing ourselves … that we, too, are but machines.”2
Kohák’s account is grounded by a sustained phenomenological reflection on the experience of living “beyond the power line and the blacktop,” and the early part of the book reflects explicitly on the passage from day to night.3 “The night comes softly,” he writes. “It does not crowd the lingering day.” “Quietly, the darkness grows in the forest,” he adds, “seeping into the clearing and penetrating the soul, all-healing, all-reconciling, renewing the world for a new day.”
This experience, however, is not a given for most of us. As I described earlier, we tend to transition from one fully lit space to another until suddenly, harshly even, we turn off the lights for the night. Consequently, as Kohák observed, “Surrounded by artifacts and constructs, we tend to lose sight, literally as well as metaphorically, of the rhythm of the day and the night, of the phases of the moon and the change of seasons, of the life of the cosmos and of our place therein.”
It occurs to me, as a passing thought just now, that perhaps the urge to manage, master, or control as much of our experience as possible, and the unwelcome attendant consequences of such efforts, such as anxiety, fear, frustration, exhaustion—perhaps that urge arises in us because we have been insulated from the rhythms, phases, and changes of the non-human world. What I mean is this: to sit and observe the patterns of the non-human world—day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year—is to be reminded of how little depends on us, how much goes on without us, and how the world will carry on after us.4 Perhaps the anxiety of control emerges in us to the same degree that we blind ourselves to the rhythms and patterns of the non-human world, the same world, of course, to which we all belong.
Returning to Kohák, he recognized that “the technical reason which produces the machine cannot teach us its human use.” As an example, Kohák observed that “we can speak of a right time only in the matrix of natural time, the rhythm of human life and the cycle of the seasons. Here there is a time to be born, a time to rejoice and a time to mourn; there is also a time to die. On an infinite line of uniform numbered moments, however, the very notion of a ‘right’ time becomes wholly unintelligible.” To take the measure of something does not guarantee that we will understand its meaning, in fact, it may very well prevent us from doing so.
Inhabiting the order of measured, quantified time, as most of us do, already inhibits our capacity to imagine another way of being in time. Our enclosure within the human-built world, in both its analog and digital dimensions, obscures the markers of alternative temporal orders. It is possible, of course, to frame this as a liberation from the limits of time just as it is possible to frame our uprootedness as a liberation from the constraints of place. And, indeed, it sometimes is just that. But it is also possible that our liberation from older cultural forms, forms which were more directly informed by a place and its time, has been used against us. To be disembedded and desynchronized is also to become subject to the stochastic order of the digital economy.
The computer, after all, is, among other things, an agent of social organization and an instrument of control. But what forms of social organization does it enable and what forms of control does it make possible?
In her 2014 book, In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics, Sarah Sharma wrote, “I found that what most populations encounter is not the fast pace of life but the structural demand that they must recalibrate in order to fit into the temporal expectations demanded by various institutions, social relationships, and labor arrangements.” I think she is right to encourage us to look not only at the speed of modern society, but at the competing demands to sync our lives to various temporal regimes. And at each point—institutions, relationships, labor arrangements—we do well to explore what technologies make possible the particular demands to recalibrate our own experience.
“There is a looming expectation,” Sharma goes on to say, “that everyone must become an entrepreneur of time control within highly differential relationships to time. It is not technological speed that determines one’s temporality; instead it results from where one fits within the biopolitical economy of time.” Of course, as Sharma notes, only workers of a certain class are encouraged in their “search for a meaningfulness of time” by an “expansive and exclusive temporal architecture of time maintenance.” This temporal architecture supporting the search for the meaningfulness of time consists of “technologies, commodities, policies, plans, and programs as well as the labor of others.” This architecture “continuously confirms and maintains the same structures of power that drain, tire, and exploit other people’s time, while elevating one group’s sense of temporal importance.”
I would only add that even for the majority of those in this more privileged group, this temporal architecture—let us call it the temporal architecture of consumerist productivity—drains, tires, and exploits. This is so because this elaborate temporal architecture is still synced either to the rhythms of the machine or to the rhythmless effusions of digital culture. To put it another way, the temporal architecture of consumerist productivity is an example of what Jacques Ellul long ago called “human techniques.” These were the techniques (therapy, pharmacology, entertainment, etc.) that became necessary to apply to human beings when the human lifeworld was turned into a machine for the production of efficiency. But the techniques ultimately fail because they are not, in fact, ordered to the good of the human being or human communities. They are applied for the sake of the larger techno-economic system within which the human is but one component.
The temporal architecture of consumerist productivity also fails because it is almost always individualist. It carves out a temporal oasis for one within the otherwise inhuman or chaotic temporalities which make their demands of us. They tend not to create a communal time within which friendships may form and flourish. Neither do they generate public time within which political action may unfold.5 Indeed, I'd put it more starkly. It is not simply that they do not provide for communal time or public time, they actively inhibit the emergence of such times.
“It is good, deeply good, to kindle a light in the darkness, though not against it.”
— Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars
4. Regarding the electric lights that allow the work of a local hospital to go on when the light of day has failed, Erazim Kohák wrote, “Those lights are deeply good, as good as the labor of all who keep vigil by their glow.”
But Kohák adds that “to think of them as a triumph over the darkness, however, is far more problematic.” The emphasis for Kohák is on the word triumph suggesting conquest or vanquishment. “We have thought in those terms for so long,” he adds, “that night has come to appear alien and threatening, an enemy to be banished, no longer a place of our being.”
In this same spirit, he offers the following counsel: “It is good, deeply good, to kindle a light in the darkness, though not against it.”
That is, I think, a profoundly wise admonition. The devil is always, always, in the details, of course. But in this image, I think we can find a way of thinking through the whole of our relationship to technology, particularly with respect to how we imagine our standing in the world as it is mediated through technology.6 It gestures toward a path marked by humility, acknowledged dependence, and participation.
As quaint as they may seem, consider, by way of illustration, the candle.
“The house is still dark and at peace,” Kohák notes somewhere along the way, “only over the table a golden circle of light inserts a sphere of human doing, at peace with the enfolding darkness.” “The lights of recent years, gas lights and electric lights, are qualitatively different,” he notes by contrast. “They flood the room, giving us the godlike power of banishing the night.”
One vanquishes, the other harmonizes; one disperses, the other gathers.
These reflections reminded me of a passing observation Bradbury’s narrator makes in Fahrenheit 451. As he searches for a way to describe a certain light in a character’s face, we read the following:
“… not the hysterical light of electricity but—what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle. One time, when he was a child, in a power-failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon ….”
I don’t know how any of this strikes you. Perhaps it smacks of a certain impractical romanticism. I certainly don’t light candles on the regular. But there is something here, I think. Some small token of another way to be and to feel and to think. And, of course, this is just an illustration of a deeper principle that might be realized in countless other practices.
The most tempting thing is to go back to the kind of empirically verifiable harms which I mentioned in passing at the outset. That’s the surest way to make the case for a different set of practices, but, of course, that is itself part of the problem. Yes, there’s a case to be made on the grounds of basic health and well-being, ours and our fellow creatures, for seeking another way of ordering our material environment.
But I find myself reaching beyond such concerns to something more ambivalent and amorphous, toward not just the healthy but the good, toward a deep recalibration of our being in the world according to a different order of time. And perhaps in thinking again about the meaning of our experience of light and dark and, perhaps especially, the transitions between the two, we can discern a different set of rhythms. “We are not only creatures of the light,” Kohák reminds us. “We are creatures of the rhythm of day and night, and the night, too, is our dwelling place.”
For my part, I decided at the start of this year that I would make an effort to get outside, even if only for a few moments, during dusk as the day slowly yields to the night. It’s been a good practice. I commend it to you, not that you may thereby be better prepared to resolve the conflicting claims laid upon you by industrial and digital time, but so that you may begin to feel another time altogether.
Kohák writes of his philosophical mentors, especially Husserl and Riceour: “Their stance was one of wonder, not of sophistication; the task they undertook was one of articulation—and their virtue was naïveté, a willingness to see before theorizing, to encounter the wonder of being rather than enclose themselves in cunningly devised theories.”
That last line about how we cope with the mismatch between the human and the human-made world by convincing ourselves that we too are but machines took on a new significance for me in light of some of the recent responses to artificial intelligence.
With a greater degree of self-awareness than Thoreau, and I actually think Thoreau is fine, Kohák set out to live in a forest clearing in rural Connecticut.
I think this applies as well to the spirit we bring to sleep. I sense, at times, that sound sleep has become unattainable not, as in a different age, because of guilty consciences but because we imagine the world, our world, depends on our effort and management. Seen from a certain perspective, to sleep soundly is to make peace with the fact that the world goes on without us.
Hannah Arendt’s schema of labor, work, and action is lurking in the background of my thinking here. It hasn’t been deeply integrated into my thinking in this essay, but I think it may be worth pursuing something like an analysis of the time of labor (ordered by the needs of the body), the time of work (ordered by the needs of culture), and the time of action (ordered by the needs of politics).
I recognize the limits of the plural pronoun. Who is the “we,” and what agency do these various configurations of “we” possess to structure their relationship to technology and the world through it? Bearing those limitations in mind, I continue to labor under the assumption that it is good, regardless of measurable outcomes, to explore alternative and better modes of being in the world.