The internet raises fundamental questions about identity and legibility, but there's something else beneath both. It's been hinted at in all the history we've looked through, and pointed to directly last week in both intention and the piece on Present Shock. It's time. Time and memory.
We are time-binding animals. We have a unique ability to pass information from one generation to the next. You could say we are capable of temporal architecture. We create our experience of time with scripted behavior - everything from weekends to pension funds - based on linguistic assumptions about the past and future, just as we construct buildings out of steel and concrete.
The internet has moved us into a new temporal landscape. We used to have a few ideologies which operated as social simulations, not just predicting possible futures, but actually creating a shared sense of historical time. Now, we have endlessly forking ideological narratives, increasingly built on a few shared networks of timestamp servers.
Whatever will happen next?
How does this fit into Kernel?¶
Aaron Lewis asks a most fascinating set of questions which will hopefully inform your own approach to thinking about the times we live in, and why an intentional approach to what we do and how we interact really matters:
How did the internet disrupt 20th century timekeeping systems and spark an insurgence of alternative historical narratives?
How do old media institutions try (and fail) to keep up with the narratives of online subcultures?
How does the immediate accessibility of so many alt histories undermine our ability to create shared futures?
And how might a more ecological awareness of the internet help us adapt to our disorienting digital time machines?
"In my grandma’s time [...] families could leave certain stories out and emphasize the good in the hope that doing so would create a better future. Today, digital media has taken that option off the table. The internet has flattened the vast archive of the past and made history unprecedentedly (and unrelentingly) immediate."
The first few sections of the essay all point at the second and third order effects of digital tools, which takes us back to the humility we proposed in the play of pattern. The 'perfect memory' of databases has proven to be both a blessing and a curse, though it was not seen this way by the people who built them. We need to learn these lessons and realise that there is no up without down, no good without bad, no North without South, so that we can more consciously engineer the trade-offs made by our generation's tools and technology.
"What Marshall McLuhan called the 'perfect memory' of computers has, in our time, spawned a garden of competing narratives and conceptions of the past/present/future [...] In today’s chaotic media environment, not even a global pandemic can restore a shared sense of Reality."
Was there ever a 'shared sense of Reality'? The real question is whether we need a shared sense of Reality to form valuable communities, or whether there is a different path in which we only share non-contextual, transactional interactions?
That is, at what level does one need to share reality to develop viable means of living together that are not totalitarian?
"The telegraph, time zones, radio, and television led to new patterns of mass connectivity and synchronisation. Time was subdivided into smaller and smaller units allowing us to achieve unprecedented levels of coordination [...] Twentieth century time was imposed on people from the top-down. Twenty-first century time is a bottom-up choose your own adventure story that allows people to make their own time machines and live anywhen."
The internet has enabled ordinary people to once again create their own sense of time. This is the most powerful political tool there is. It's no mistake that Satoshi talks - at length - about "timestamp servers" in the Bitcoin whitepaper. This has always been what peer-to-peer technologies are about: freedom from authoritarian routines.
"The disruption of the old timekeeping regime created a void that’s being filled by new online communities, cliques, and cults [...] People are seeking out groups and ideologies that put them 'back in time', and many internet subcultures do exactly that."
Our sense of time defines how and what we value. It's critical to understand how a global web of light-speed communication and memory has changed, and continues to change, how we perceive time. The alternative is to wander unconsciously over what Aaron describes as the "Web's surface", always falling into the gravity wells which pull you into "orbit around ideological sub-groups. Algorithms are the riverbed, and users are the water."
Prompt: What is the most powerful political tool there is?
The ability to create your own sense of time.
No more guards¶
When the way we experience time shifts so rapidly, narrative power moves towards ideological subgroups who are already creating the next meme by the time Old Media reports on the previous iteration.
"The old guard is now left to study the activities and new realities of online tribes. These groups are constantly churning out unsanctioned narratives that attract large followings [...] As in the media revolution sparked by Gutenberg, the powers that be are not too pleased about losing their monopoly over the technologies of reality creation [...] The conflict between old and new media is in many ways a dispute over who gets to control the “clocks” we live by; who gets to set the pace; who gets access to the technologies that make it easy to synchronize (or de-synchronize) large groups of people."
Since 2009, we have known how to develop and deploy systems which can synchronize the transactional reality of the planet which no-one owns. This is weird, and our social and political consciousness is still trying to catch up. The most political feature of Bitcoin is not the article embedded in its Genesis Block, it's the architecture of timestamp servers dwelt on at length in the whitepaper and then largely ignored by everyone else because we tend to find that thinking about time is too esoteric:
"Clocks are the deceptively simple product of an intricate political arrangement. I’d even go so far as to say that politics is the art and science of creating the time machines that we inhabit — the calendars that help us orient and coordinate as we journey from cradle to grave."
It's both fascinating and horrifying to witness the political artifice of time-keeping come crumbling down around us, but it also implies a new degree of freedom previously unimaginable - the freedom not just to decide what to do with your time, but to create your very own experience of it.
Prompt: Bitcoin taught us how to develop and deploy systems which can synchronize what?
The transactional reality of the planet.
However, Aaron then writes:
"The explosion of alternative histories hasn’t just eroded the influence of 20th century media institutions, it’s also damaged our ability to build collective futures. We’re lost in the garden of forking memes, and the idea of linear progress along a single historical time line seems like a quaint artifact from a much simpler era [...] The 'perfect memory' of digital media has given rise to a kind of collective dementia that is scrambling our shared memories and messing with our shared imaginations/simulations of the future [...] The internet is like a time machine that’s bringing back the ghosts of our ancestors."
Is this really true? Are we really seeing a kind of collective dementia and inability to create shared imaginations of the future, or are we seeing a genuinely shared collective imagination emerging? One which is actually distributed, and therefore foreign and disorientating to minds used to following a "collective" reality created by the few?
Marshall McLuhan foreshadowed the philosophical implications of all this in a 1970 interview:
McLuhan’s point is that it is not us per se who re-constitute mythic consciousness: it happens by virtue of our “media environments”. The clock is one such media environment, the result of which is the experience of time as regimented routine, which has consequences both political and personal. The internet is another “media environment”. Though it does not replace the clock, one second-order effect of the amount of information it exposes us to in any given period is the kind of fragmentation Aaron is describing.
However, recall that we are time-binding animals, capable of constructing the temporal architecture within which we experience the sequence of events, to which we assign value by virtue of the order in which they occur. Just as the effects of the internet overwhelm our ability to keep a coherent sense of sequence, blockchains appear. Blockchains are, in some important ways, a replacement for the clock-as-media-environment. They enable us to agree on the order of our actions in time—how we transact—while interacting in a hyperconnected world, without requiring that we all stick to a single, regimented version of events.
It may seem strange to say this: don’t blockchains mean we all agree on the state of the network at any given time? No. The network can, and often does, fork. For various reasons, people who are participating fully can arrange transactions in different orders and build on different versions of history. There is nothing stopping this. There are only transparent incentives for how power accumulates to different versions over time. Whether this makes us “post-history and timeless” is left up to you to decide. Transparent incentives for how power accumulates over time, and an ability to reach eventual agreement about the order of events without needing to force one interpretation at any particular point, do potentially enable a greater variety of human expression. Media which enable greater diversity and variety are generally worth cultivating.
If we see blockchains as media environments which help cultivate variety (both of expression and of sequence), while simultaneously ensuring eventual agreement, then perhaps there is cause for optimism.
Aaron provides what, at first blush, seems to be an alternative perspective:
"Digital media has done away with the very thing that created our sense of history: imperfect memory [...] Artful forgetting, editing, and curation allowed them to craft narratives that helped their children understand the past and orient towards the future. The internet has undercut these time-tested practices of intergenerational knowledge transfer."
If the internet was already trending away from imperfect memory, then blockchains surely amplify this trend enormously. But is it true that intergenerational knowledge transfer requires artful forgetting? If it were, how would anyone ever know that something had been left out in the first place?
Is it not the case that we absorb the stories from our elders, and then discover more about the world by virtue of living in it, which leads to the realisation that we were told a particular version of what happened, rather than the whole truth? Realising this, we can then interpret the version we received combined with the knowledge we have gained through experience. It is this personal interpretation that brings us to maturity, insight, compassion. Perhaps even wisdom?
Moreover, it shifts the role of elders from artful ways of forgetting trauma so as not to pass it on (while nevertheless imparting the lessons learnt) to the art of maintaining consensus about how the events we experience are sequenced in time (and thereby the value which each holds). Both of these require deep craft.
The internet as a media environment may fragment our sense of a coherent time. One of the reasons for this is that it is definitely not a replacement for the clock. However, blockchains are. They are–in the words of Satoshi–”a network of timestamp servers” which establish sequence without resorting to regimented routines. Aaron does eventually come to a similarly hopeful note by realising that all of these media environments are ultimately mirrors. Is it the story you received, or the one you verify by virtue of your own experience, or some mix of the two? Only you can really know the answer to that question.
“We’re transitioning from a world of linear narratives and time lines to a garden of forking memes that we’re free to explore and tend to. The gardening games with the richest environments, the deepest stories, and the most interesting characters will attract the most people."
Here is what this entire brief boils down to: in a multiverse of different subjective understandings of time, what is one to do? Create a garden! That is, make somewhere tranquil for yourself where you can pass time leisurely and at ease; a place which responds naturally to the cycles of the world in which it grows.
"We are as time travelers now, and we might as well figure out how to imbue our digital 'clocks' with a more ecological, human-readable sense of time."
As the old Sufi teaching goes: "it does not matter if it is the Day of Reckoning; if you have a date palm seed in your hand, plant it!" In truth, there is only now, there has only ever been now, and now has no end. Every wisdom tradition points to the potency of this moment, right now. These ideas are nothing new, they're just dressed up in digital garb. The world has always been a confusing place to live, except for those who can find the appropriate means required within their specific time to realise the eternity of this instant.
Prompt: What can you do in a world of constantly forking memes and different kinds of time?
Create a garden where you can pass your own time leisurely and with ease.