Are we going to be ok?
There’s an old saying about what happens when myths start to crumble: The entire structure the myth was meant to justify in the first place starts to break apart as well. The sexual revolution of the 1960s sprouted following widespread revolt against the repressive myths of the 1950s, with cultural dictums about the necessity of the nuclear family and traditional gender roles starting to ring hollow. Secularization and centering of the Self — what we understand today as “modernity” — could only be made necessary by the retreat of the Catholic Church as the center of power and ideology in the West. If you think about it, societal progression could basically be defined as the friction that occurs with the crumbling of myth.
It is always hard to shake the feeling that you are not unique, that every generation experiences ruptures in the social fabric. In a way, this thought has sort of a spiritual quality to it: Every decade brings about massive, unexpected changes to which society adjusts. Just like how South Asian farmers prepare for a yearly monsoon —these things are works of nature and forces beyond our control, so it is best to not harp on them at all.
But things today seem different, don’t they? We’re seeing myths crumble before our eyes at an astonishing rate — to an extent that barely allows for reflection, let alone even the most cursory attempts at adjustment. There too, exists an old dictum in the realm of storytelling: Put your character in a tree and throw rocks at them. This piece of advice has traditionally been taught as a crucial method to move a story along, igniting the friction that propels conflict and eventually births something anew. Today, as we lay inert in our various trees, we aren’t just being hit with rocks — we’re being pelted with hand grenades.
Ever since, say, 9/11, when the societal malaise of a post-Cold-War Earth was shattered in favor of an endless panic and new vague mode of imperialism, every single cultural form seems to be trembling. In 2019, no cultural norm or structure is sacred. This has played out both in net-positive ways (like the acknowledgement of the sexual/gender spectrum and the mass-outreach and voice enabled by the internet) and net-negative ways. (The increasingly unjustifiable horrors of neoliberal capitalism, the breakdown of governance structures and “liberal society,” the death of any notion of meritocracy.)
Still, it seems like we are living through something even more unprecedented and uncertain than in previous generations; the bewildering pace of myth-crumbling cannot be explained by mere changes in cultural attitudes. What we seem to be experiencing is a fracture in our perception of existence—a massive, inadvertent reorientation of how to go about our lives.
In all honesty, the explanation is most likely pretty simple — it’s because of the internet, to quote a convention-bending artist himself.
The internet, as been examined already, isn’t another world, as some people suggest, but a hyperreal extension of our physical realm. The internet exists on an equal mental-plane with our material world; it takes up an equal amount of our mental faculties.
This reality has many implications, as you could and have probably already guessed; but one of the more seldom-examined side effects is a break in our basic conception of time itself. The rise of the internet has — whether we know it or not — all but shattered the concept of 24-hour time, maybe not in a literal sense, but rather the time we experience on say, a calendar or a clock.
Think about it: The internet is an unceasing realm of content on to which most crucial conversations, news and culture has essentially shifted. As more and more generations grow up with the internet as a hyperreal appendage of the physical world, the more this new reality will solidify. We no longer live according to the confines of the clock; digital spaces have unmoored information from the rigid 24-hour structures it once adhered to.
One of the few people writing about our new world and time is the young British philosopher Tom Whyman. In one of Whyman’s more recent Outline articles, “Everything Happens So Much,” Whyman put this new dilemma in stark terms:
“If everything never stops happening, then it must become impossible to get a proper sense of when anything in particular started, or ended, or was going on, or whatever.”
Whyman uses this point to illustrate another fact:
“Why has this sort of distortion arisen? Possibly it has something to do with the way in which the internet continues to run, for the most part, parallel to the everyday — it has not yet sucked the whole of the everyday in. Different people are differently Online, but most people will just dip in and out, with the internet and social media being just one facet of a life also lived and worked in Offline.”
Think about it: It seems like Donald Trump’s been president for an eternity; given our new internet time, I’d venture to guess that there’s been more content written about the man in two and a half years than the entirety of say, Ronald Reagan’s equally racist and embarrassing 8 years as president. All of this leads to a skewed relationship to the passing of time. The Parkland shooting seems like it could’ve happened a decade ago, that stupid fucking Harambe meme seems like it was just yesterday and was SNL ever even funny to begin with? Who knows. We are all experiencing an unwitting whiplash, helpless before the tyranny of the hyperreal realm and the accelerated time it causes.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Whyman’s specific takes on The New Time, and reached out to him for some clarification and guidance. Whyman had his first child shortly before I reached out to him, and was tremendously gracious with the little capacity he had for higher level thought. We touched on three topics in our chat, the new and old time, the question of new time being an accident and time and the eternal present.
The New and Old Time
All of these new revelations about time have particular relevance for young people. Being a subject within the grey, hazy horror that is our postmodern moment is hard enough; we can barely stop to contemplate current events, let alone ourselves. We try on new identities and cultural postures at increasingly rapid rates, shedding them similarly to the way The New Time sheds events in favor of new ones.
This experience is fundamentally unique to us — not everyone, as Whyman suggests, is “equally online.” There are many pressing schisms between today’s young and old, but perhaps none as salient as the very realities we live in.
“One obvious effect of this is that time is going to be felt differently across generations. If younger people live on internet-time and older people continue to live on the old clock-time… well then increasingly their realities are going to come apart,” said Whyman. “We’ve already seen this in the different ways that older and younger people consume news media: Recently I’ve been thinking that generational divisions in politics are often less to do with a clash of values, as we might most obviously assume, and more to do with the fact that politics is set, if you’re an older person who still mostly only reads newspapers, you live in a different universe than a young person who gets their news from social media.”
This seems undeniably true to me. What’s even more interesting, though, is what happens when such older generations do subsume themselves within the hyperreal, 24-hour content loop inherent in an online life. It is hard to imagine the rise of conspiracies such as Qanon and the Flat Earth occurring mainly within a digital-native generation such as Gen Z, for example; the flattening of time and information overload inherent in that phenomenon has many externalities, or accidents to quote the French philosopher Paul Virilio.
Is the New Time An Accident?
The New Time is, really, just a technological innovation. And technical objects bring about their own accidents — the ship invented the shipwreck, and so on.
“I suppose one might say that what I identify as a new conception of time is itself an accident, since it has been an inadvertent effect of the internet and social media,” Whyman replied in response to my question. “And then what is really needed, is a way of responding to it that will allow us not to be oriented towards this accident in a wholly passive way… (like how one might protect against shipwrecks by inventing the lighthouse, I suppose).”
One might respond to such skepticism of such technological-runoff with charges that the person raising the concerns is a reactionary luddite opposed to culture’s progression. But the opposite is true: Our new conception of time could be libertory if we put in place the proper defense mechanisms for policing their potentially odious effects—the ship, the shipwreck as well as the lighthouse, as Whyman described.
Time And The Eternal Present
None of this, however, addresses the issue of presence and its relationship to how we experience time.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida had a particularly astute, if not obvious take on the present: the entire concept as such is incoherent to begin with. We never are really fully present. Think of a piece of music; we never process the present note in a vacuum, but rather are always haunted by our impression of what came before and the anticipation of what comes next. The internet, however, and by extension its reorientation of time, flips this notion on its head.
In the aforementioned Outline article, Whyman recalls the writings of late British-cultural theorist Mark Fisher. Whyman mentions Fisher’s writings on our cultural condition in the 21st century, how we “have lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present.” Fisher, however, was describing a culture that can only feel presence, but cannot do much else.
Whyman reiterated this sentiment when asked about time and its relationship to presence,
“When responding to news events (for instance great tragedies), there is very much a demand to be present — which actually we are quite good at seeming to meet. But the problem is that these events never take place in a vacuum, that in fact they are part of a rush of cause and effect which we could only really do justice to by untangling. Our response to these events is usually more: we are present, we express our horror and/or condolences, then we move on. What’s missing is the work of memory. See how easily, for instance, those billionaires could pledge money to rebuild Notre Dame — only to never actually donate it. The narrative had already moved on from people caring about Notre Dame, by the time their real intentions became clear.”
The Bastards of New Time
Of course, the work of time is never finished. It really is quite terrifying: every single event, large and small from the pliocene until today affecting the web of circumstances we find ourselves in; the unimaginable weight of time looming over us always. What we are experiencing is the rapid acceleration of time, brought about by an unforeseen runoff of a technical entity. We too are seeing the bastards of The New Time sprout before our eyes—sometimes they take the form of a lack of collective memory, sometimes it manifests itself in other ways, such as our ever-growing detachment from calendar time. There are probably dozens of other effects we have yet to notice.
I suppose calendar time is just another myth that is starting to crumble.