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BONNIE GREER: How time killed the future

Dance of Time I by Salvador Dali. Photo: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images. - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

A book leads to a new way to look at time. If we can let go of it, and stop falling for visions of ‘the future’, we might all be better off.

Growing up in what used to be called ‘the ghetto’, there were always elders who seemed to exist in their own time. When I – a bona fide ‘Why is the sky blue?’ kid – would ask when the end of the world was coming, one of these elders would patiently inform me that the end of the world will come when I die.

When these old folks would sometimes arrive late for functions, they would not attribute this to age, but to their concept of time. One old guy would habitually say, by way of explanation, something to the effect that those who invented clocks should live by them. These inventors of time had absolutely nothing to do with him or his life.

At the time, of course, I had no idea that these ancients in our ‘hood were natural Einsteinians, homespun explainers of his theories on relativity. But they were. What they said was simple: that time itself is a construct. That an absolute thing called time, a thing not in relation to something else, does not exist.

The invitation to me recently to participate in Radio 4’s Archive on 4 – this one celebrating 70 years of Any Questions? – made four very important assumptions.

The first was that there will be a BBC in something we all accept as ‘the future’.

The second is that, if there is, people will be listening to it.

The third is whether those of us taking part in the programme talking about the past – a relative past to us, collectively and individually – will matter to anyone except us.

And the biggest assumption of them all, of course, is that there will be something called ‘the future’.

It is easy, thinking about all of this, to see how poignant human life is. We believe that there is something inevitable and concrete called ‘the future’ out there. We work towards it, both a temporal one and an eternal one.

These observations concerning the nature of that collective agreement we call ‘reality’ and the nature of the thing we call ‘time’ is what Carlo Rovelli, the Italian theoretical physicist and popular science writer, explores in his new and blessedly slim volume, The Order Of Time.

Rovelli’s book emerged from his exploration of the notion of ‘time’. His theory is that time has to be measured and defined in relation to something else. That ‘something else’ has no common agreement in reality. We buy into it. We make it up because it makes life easier.

For example, on the set of a live television show, if you make a gesture, the monitor will show it two or three nanoseconds later. So, in fact, the ‘live’ broadcast is not really ‘live’ because the viewers are seeing the gesture nanoseconds later. Yet we all agree that is live. When, in fact, it is not. It is ‘live TV’, scientifically – a construct.

Rovelli writes how, from space, we see earth as a tranquil, largely blue world. In fact, the earth is a cauldron, bubbling beneath, changing, shifting. What we humans see is superficial, relative. We have made an agreement about this superficiality. One of the names created by this agreement is ‘civilisation’. ‘Time’ is another name that comes out of this agreement.

So the more ‘bubbly’ things are, the slower time – that ‘line’ which emerges from this thermodynamic – seems to move. In understanding this, Rovelli finally gave me the answer to why, as a little kid, I dreaded the arrival of September.

Not because I did not love school, but because June and the summer and my freedom from academic regimentation, seemed so far away. My experience of time as ‘slow’ was because I was young – ‘quicker’. Now, June seems to arrive at lightening speed because I have slowed down. I am ‘cooler’. The arrow of time cannot exist without heat. This heat is my layperson’s description of entropy and, to Rovelli, entropy is higher in the ‘future’, lower in the ‘past’. ‘Past’ and ‘future’ are, in themselves, relative because they depend on observation. And observation is not without bias, whether educational or cultural.

This is why there can be no such thing as a one-size-fits-all intelligence test. MENSA belongs to MENSA’s metrics and nowhere else. An astrophysicist with our Western idea of intelligence becomes much less than intelligent in the midst of the Amazon rainforest, clad in a loin cloth and armed with a knife. Time becomes relative there, too.

Rovelli has stated in an interview that he sees the flow of time not as some orderly queue that we, in the UK, might make – which is what the majority of us are taught that it is – but more of a rowdy crowd, something his native Italians would make.

We have this ‘orderly’ notion because, ever since industrialisation, the world has been taken over by clocks. Time pieces. Synchronization. Precision. 
And the idea that ‘time’ is a reality.

Politics and politicians may be becoming more and more unsatisfactory because politics may be the ultimate commedia dell’arte of a false notion of time.

We choose our political parties, our movements and leaders because we believe that they will improve ‘the future’. Politicians trade on this, stoke and encourage it, because they are part and parcel of the invention of what we yearn for.

The present, in most politics, is always ‘bad’ and we must ‘move towards change’.

Yet none of them help us to understand that there is no ‘future’ to move towards.

That ‘there’ is where we are, and in understanding it, we make the future. But the sun dials and water clocks and angels in bell towers were replaced by clocks that regulated our lives, left us no time for imagination, dreaming.

In some sense, it is no wonder that we have become so polarised because, as we rely more and more on a general definition of time, we also create a general definition of reality itself.

This reality becomes full of messiahs, false prophets, and the lure of that thing known as ‘the bright future’.

Rovelli begins each chapter of his profound book with verses from Horace’s Odes, these little jewels of our humankind.

His last chapter begins: ‘The brief arc of our days, O Sestius, prevents us from launching prolonged hopes.’

Our purchase on happiness itself is the casting aside of false beliefs, the ‘past’, and our fear of collectivity, of a kind of internationality.

And that there was nothing at the end of the rainbow I once walked towards at the end of my street as a child.

The discovery of that reality was all.

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