Time’s Winged Chariot

Time calls to each of us, a quiet hum at the edge of awareness. For some, it is the siren song  of a lazy summer afternoon, the sleepy midwestern drone of crickets in a Bradbury idyll, watching crinkly leaves drift down the street in golden afternoon light. For others, it is rapid-fire slow-mo Matrix-enabled  Wachoswkian martial arts. Will it be possible to freeze a cascade of bullets through the power of mind and contemplation alone, step outside of the rush of time, the ultimate triumph of mind over momentum? Or will we be able to accelerate our consciousness at will, live a year in a millisecond, then return to the mainstream better, wiser, older but not-older? When geeks dream of time-travel, they are really envisioning the universal battle with Death, the devourer of worlds, the tyrant of moments and millennia.

In Unwinding the Clock Swedish physicist Bodil Jonsson ruminates on time. I read her book during a period of increasing stress, a year-long project which radically changed how nurses at my hospital document minute-by-minute vital signs. When the project went live, a  crushingly impossible 2,000 “fix it, fix it!” requests came in over three days, for which I was solely responsible. It meant 18 hour days, sleeping less than the average field-mouse in midsummer.

Jonsson suggests that time is the only thing we have, and meditates on how it can be bought or spent. As a diligent physicist, she makes specific calculations. “Instead of an eight-hour work day plus a one-hour commute by car, I’m now going to work five hours a day and bicycle for four.”

The math works out, dollar for dollar, hour for hour. We try to save, spend, lose, cheat, or kill time, but all of these are ultimately an illusion. James Gleick, in Faster, concludes that “neither technology nor efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not a thing you have lost. It is not a thing you ever had. It is what you live in. You can drift in its currents, or you can swim.”

Drifting in time… Is it possible to float with a photon? What would it be like to travel at the speed of light? Go as fast as anything in the universe? Einstein dreamed this journey, followed the first space-time geodesic, sped lazily across parsecs, and gave birth to a thousand paradoxes.

Stopping time is appealing in this decade of Facebook shock, where keeping up with friends requires checking your smartfacephone every few minutes. As the Red Queen said, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place!” Juiced, jostled, and jacked, the moments have  run away with us. Electrons and guilt pile up faster than paper. Exponential change easily overwhelms our sluggish millisecond mammalian neurons. I hear “Stop the train, I want to get off!” as often as “When’s the next?” And yet, the tick of the clock is the same as it has always been, and the sun stands as still as ever in the noonday sky.

Perhaps, as Borges wrote, we are living in the garden of forking paths after all, where each mouse click changes the flow of time itself.

“Ts’ui Pen… did not think of time as absolute and uniform.
He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing,
ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times.
This web of time – the strands of which approach one another,
bifurcate, intersect, or ignore each other… — embraces every possibility.”

A few years ago our hospital implemented electronic medical orders, taking a process that used to take hours and accelerating it to inhuman electron-speed. Speed is efficient, but if you can’t manage the pace, it can also kill – or steal your job, house, and pension plan. That lesson was learned in the flash crash of May 2010, when the Dow dropped 700 points in a few minutes, thanks to hyperjittery algorithms buying and selling at speeds no synapse can match.

The cultural dividing line for visual speed was crossed on May 25, 1977, when Star Wars lasers blazed on a thousand movie screens. MTV followed, bringing hyper into the home. Perhaps epileptic animator dance emulates the artificial nystagmus we learn from screen life. As Anthony Lane says, the quick cut visual puts us in “our ever-growing predicament: there is nothing so boring in life, let alone in cinema, as the boredom of being excited all the time.”

We’re entering a period when bots will progressively be faster than mere legacy humans. They already trade stocks, weld, sort packages, and search the Internet faster than is humanly possible. (Recently a robot mastered the game of rock-paper-scissors, beating every challenger. When it can snatch flies from the air with chopsticks, geeks will bow to the master).

The paradox of speed is that split-second response times take decades of preparation, whether in dance moves or decision-making. The ultimate flash of intuitive Satori which abstracts you from the universe, stopping time like Einstein’s photon, may take a life of meditation. Hence the dream of quantum computing, infinite cascades of complexity collapsing from the multiverse of quantum states, is to give the just-so answer to the question of life at the push of a button. A lifetime in the blink of an eye.

In 1967 Ryu Mitsuse wrote an enigmatic novel, Ten Billion Days, involving vast spaces of space and time, titanic struggles among beings dimly glimpsed. At the end he comes to a vision different from the entropy wasteland of physics – arising, perhaps, from the Eastern cyclic sense of time.

“Surging and receding…
Surging and receding…
The sound of the waves rolling in and rolling back out has echoed across this world for hundreds of millions of years, a long reach toward eternity.”

In his 2009 book Eternity: our next billion years, Michael Hanlon dares to imagine a million millennia. We may be tied to the moment by our slow-moving and dimly sparking wetware, but something calls us to look further, into possible futures of mind, soul, or substrate-independent patterns of information in Hilbert space.

Eternity and no-time are two sides of a coin. The day you were born is the mirror of your mortality. Henry David exhorts us to gaze deeper: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”

Time plays itself out through story, linking event to event, life to life, moment to moment. Borges’ forking garden is the ultimate destruction of time. Beyond there be dragons.

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