Simultaneousness or: the past, the present, the future and other fictions

Our perception of time has changed profoundly. Nowadays, things are happening all at the same time. Simultaneousness requires a new understanding of time.

Remember the days when things were happening one after the other? When interruptions were rare? From time to time, your landline phone or the doorbell were ringing. In the office, you would occasionally talk to your colleagues, and mail was something physical that arrived only once a day. The evening news on TV and the morning paper would give you a brief summary of what happened outside of your immediate surroundings. You would hear breaking news on the radio, the fastest medium at the time. But even radio would rarely interrupt its programming to report something that couldn’t wait until the next full hour news broadcast.

This basically was the world I grew up in. When my father came home from work, he would almost never get a call from his boss. Heck, until the late seventies my parents didn’t even have a phone. People had to call our neighbours if necessary. Otherwise, my parents corresponded with our relatives and friends through handwritten letters and postcards. Today, you still can find some traces of this romantic world in rural areas where cellphone coverage is low. But even with EDGE only (which was considered high-speed back in the days), your messenger still works, more or less. You don’t have the full digital experience, but you’re still far from offline.

A peculiar paradox

In today’s world, things are happening all at the same time. Interruptions are frequent. You carry a device that can interrupt you all the time, and it does if you let it do so. The office world has changed dramatically, and not only mail arrives every second, but also other messages on myriads of different platforms. News, both real and fake, is everywhere and always available, spreading like wildfire. The whole communications process has sped up to a point where everything happens at once, simultaneously. It’s now up to the individual how to filter the constant maelstrom of information that’s pelting down on us day in, day out.

In and by itself, this simultaneousness is neither a bad nor a good thing. But it certainly demands some reflection. There is a peculiar paradox at work. Communications technology is supposed to save time, and it definitely does. You don’t need to wait for handwritten letters arriving to your physical inbox after some days. Via messenger, the answer can come immediately. But technology also eats up time, not only through the explosion of messaging in all flavours that needs to be managed. Science has found evidence that we perceive time differently through the use of technology: Time is running faster. We feel more pressured by time. Our brains are speeding up, which is again neither a bad nor a good thing, but ambivalent.

Time is not what we think it is

Simultaneity blurs the once clear distinction between work and leisure time. When we are at the office, we’re constantly distracted from work. On the go and at home, we’re constantly distracted by work. This simultaneity makes it hard to maintain the distinction – and also to properly measure work hours. Time spent at the office is at best a proxy for real productive work time. Employees de facto get paid not for their time, but for the results of their work. Last week, the Court of Justice of the European Union declared that EU member states must require employers to set up a system enabling the duration of daily working time to be measured. This might be a bigger challenge than expected.

But what is time, anyway? Albert Einstein famously theorised that two distinct events don’t happen at once in an absolute sense if they happen at different points in space. Simultaneity depends on the observer’s reference frame. Spacetime is a four-dimensional continuum, in theory at least. If these theories are right (and physics has found ample evidence), then time is not what we think it is. Without delving into physics, let’s do a thought experiment. Simultaneity is something we perceive. In modern physics, it depends on the movement of the observer in relation to the observed events. In our daily lives, it depends on how we deal with time. It is a social construct. Modern time was invented not earlier than in the 19th century with the proliferation of railways.

Technology has changed our experience of time

The railways required time to be synchronised over distance to avoid crashes and secure operations according to a timetable. Synchronisation of time over distances was only made possible through the invention of the telegraph. Time zones followed even later and were fully adopted only as late as 1956, when Nepal switched to a standard UTC offset (UTC+5:45, still a bit odd). Before the arrival of railways and the telegraph, or modern transport and communications technology, nobody really cared if two events at different places would happen simultaneously or not. The answer wouldn’t have any practical relevance whatsoever. Also, there was no way to find it out.

With the acceleration and proliferation of modern transport and communications technology, we have basically accelerated time up to a point where it almost collapses into a single simultaneity. At least that’s how we increasingly perceive time. But at the same time we know there is no absolute simultaneity. At least that’s what physics tells us. Thus, we run into age-old questions regarding the existence or non-existence of past, present, and future. The past has already ceased to exist, the future doesn’t yet exist, and the present, well, is subject to relativity. Time remains a mystery, but at least we experience time.

Technology has changed our experience of time, and this change requires a new understanding of time. Like railways and the telegraph did, digital technology will again change how we experience and understand time. In the future, or what we call so.

Photo by Heather Zabriskie on Unsplash