Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock
We’re well past the end of the century when time, for the first time, curved, bent, slipped, flashforwarded and flashbacked yet still kept on rolling along. We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.
— Ali Smith, Artful
Five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present tidily blossomed.
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
The 2016 film Arrival is a narrative of decipherment. Humans are intent on understanding the purpose of the recently landed aliens, which have appeared at twelve different locations on Earth. To understand, one requires language and communication. But one has to be mindful of the pitfalls of how language is interpreted. One person’s signifier does not always marry up with another’s signified.
In another recent film, Paterson, a Japanese visitor (Masatoshi Nagase) to the protagonist’s home town likens poetry in translation to standing under a shower wearing a rain mac. Nuance and beauty are lost. Misunderstanding is all too easy, which is one of the points on which humanity’s response to the aliens hinges in Arrival. Where some read weapon, others intend gift.
Arrival’s lead character, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), starts communicating with the aliens via single written and vocalised words. They respond with the occasional guttural noise, but primarily with ideograms. The first breakthrough for Louise and her colleagues comes with the realisation that these ideograms are complex combinations of words and phrases, which form full sentences and paragraphs.
The key discovery, however, comes when Louise alone encounters one of the aliens, nicknamed Costello. Where the linearity and structure of much human language is bound to time, Louise learns that the aliens’ language is non-linear. They are without the constraints of time as we perceive it. Her own fluency in their language unshackles Louise from the limitations of human time. With their language, she gains the ability to time travel, seeing into her own future and that of humankind. Past, present and future are simultaneously available to her. She is out of time.
In a starkly different approach to time, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s futuristic 1931 novel Brave New World are slaves to the clock. Their happiness depends on it, rigidly following a routine of work and pleasure, both physical and chemically induced. These are rarely chosen, usually prescribed. Humans are produced in batches, and effectively have battery lives. They are created to fulfil designated functions, their own chemicals harvested once their use-by-dates have passed and their bodies have been incinerated.
Language – in the form of mantras, anodyne phrases, belief systems as sound bites – is imposed on the humans of Brave New World at different stages of their infancy and youth. This is achieved via hypnopaedia, a form of teaching through voice recordings heard during sleep. The citizens are conditioned to accept caste, brainwashed ideologically, and placed in thrall to the Fordian factory clock of Brave New World’s global society. Only those on ‘uncivilised’ reservations or exiled to island communities in far-flung localities like Iceland and the Falklands are able to escape the clock’s tyranny.
All of which cultural musings stir up reflections on my own temporal conditioning and experience. From late 1999 to the end of 2014, I lived the life of a commuter. A daily four-hour, door-to-door round trip from home to office and back again. The same faces on the train, the same seat occupied. The same coffee routine. Days filled with meetings and largely pointless correspondence. An eating, vegetating and sleeping routine that was far from healthy until the weekend’s release.
To be honest, I never got used to it. From the period 1993 to 1999, I had been home-based, first as a research student then as a freelancer. Office and commuting life was a shock to my body clock, to my introversion, to my effectiveness. I disliked the way time was regimented and controlled. It disturbed my desire for reflection and creative quality, which I preferred to the produce-on-demand, quantitative busyness that I encountered in each of the public, private and non-profit organisations I worked for during the next fifteen years.
Financial considerations aside, the option to return to freelancing in late 2014 was an attractive one, not least because it enabled me to dedicate myself to activities I am passionate about: writing and editing, both producing myself and helping others to realise their literary ambitions. But there has been another side effect that is relevant to my ongoing exploration of time and memory.
Freelancing has taken me out of time, at least time as I had come to know it as a commuter. The experience is somewhat different too as a forty-something to that of my twenty-something self in the 1990s. The day, of course, remains topped-and-tailed by family routine: wake-up alarms, meals, dad-taxi services. But otherwise, as a writer and editor, I find that my work can be done at any time. Sometimes there are early morning flurries, at other times inspiration takes hold late at night or during a midday walk on the beach.
In many respects, I am always working. But I do not mean that in an onerous way. Reading a book is work; it is research regardless of the subject matter or genre. Riding my bike or standing under the shower or mowing the lawn are all part of ‘office time’; periods for reflection, sifting, testing out phrases, composing. My interaction with clients is asynchronous, only occasionally regulated by in-person meetings or video calls. These are with people dispersed around the globe, in Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Romania, the US, the UK. Change the place, and the clock changes too.
Family life provides a loose sense of structure, as do project deadlines. But otherwise the commuter’s distinction between weekdays and weekends, morning work and evening work, all dissolve. Which raises questions about my post-commuting relationship to time. Is time as I experience it throughout a 24-hour period always linear? Or is it determined by my engagement with other people? At certain points bound to the clock, at others unbound from it?
Do I reconnect with linear time only when I have a meeting, a call, a train to catch, or as the scattered members of my family begin to return home? When I write, lost in flow, scanning both the fictions and facts of memory, blending fantasy and reality, what aspects of time am I navigating? Finally, to what extent is all of our perception of time entwined with both language and our communication with others?
My sense is that, as with Louise in Arrival, our experience and perception of time is multifaceted. It can be linear or cyclical or boundaryless. Our physical and mental conceptions of it can diverge. Yet through language, spoken and scribed, we can in some way anchor ourselves to it. We are both in and out of time.
Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. Just as an author does, we construct our own narrative, assemble the scenes in a plausible order, make inferences about cause and effect.
— James Gleick, Time Travel
So emotion, fear, age, isolation, body temperature and rejection can all affect our perception of the speed of time, as does concentration, or ‘attention’.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped
Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby