Is technology devouring the present? No, we’re doing it ourselves.
The year is young, and you feel old. Where have the past twelve months gone? Somehow, they’re gone, swallowed up in the blink of an eye on New Year's Eve. It’s a strange feeling: Time simultaneously flies and stretches like an old piece of chewing gum to which every memory, no matter how bad, seems forever to stick. “Racing standstill”, as the French media philosopher Paul Virillo describes it. He describes a present in which the human sense of time is all muddled up, which has a lot to do with the technological changes of recent years.
The Internet and mobile digital technologies have changed our understanding and sense of time. Some say for the better. After all, simply by ubiquitous multitasking and the parallel completion of several tasks in the same moment we should become faster and even more productive. It's possible to simultaneously listen to a podcast and make a phone call or change the baby and clean out the dishwasher. We live in a parallel society in which everyone and everything, including ourselves, is always available. For time, this means that its linear passing, one thing coming after the next, has been replaced by the concept of simultaneity. The Internet has interrupted time as we knew it and reassembled it into a multi-level puzzle in which those who want to keep up must place every piece simultaneously.
For more sensitive minds, this is not always an advantage. They suffer from chronophobia — the growing fear that time is passing ever more quickly, simply too quickly. In the world of the Internet, the present has merged with the future. As a result, the temporal dimension of hope that previously used to be the source of much of our attention is now missing, according to the Canadian media philosopher Douglas Coupland, who uses the term “time sickness” to describe the phenomenon.
A variety of apps on our smartphones turn this temporary feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out) into a business model. We can log our activities and systematically record and evaluate them according to their percentage share of daily business, use the Pomodoro technique to remind us to take regular breaks in the infinitely accelerated flow of time, or document good resolutions to improve how we manage work and leisure time, holding ourselves accountable if it’s not working out. But none of this changes the course of time.
In fact, it’s been scientifically proven that time seems to pass more quickly with increasing age. And this applies not only to recently experienced periods of time but also to entire decades of life, which simply seem to fly by the older one gets. So not even time can save itself from the steely grip of inflation.
If the Internet has disrupted time as we knew it, then what about trying to disrupt the disruption? There are several possibilities. We could simply decide to do away with the calendar and live without a time structure, as the small Arctic village of Sommarøy tried to do two years ago. Without time and its measurement, businesses could simply open when the owners wanted them to and people could meet spontaneously instead of having to tediously arrange everything in advance. Well, that might still work for a population of just 300, but in our complex world, that's no way to live. The clock will remain, even if above all else it shows how time flies.
If there’s no structural disruption, then it’s up to us to change our perspective of time. We don't need apps or new technologies to do this because there’s one “techne” that’s perfectly suited to the purpose: leisure. It doesn’t describe a state of laziness, as is often mistakenly assumed, but rather a relaxed focus on the present. Augustine wrote in his treatise on time in the 4th century: “There are three times, a present with respect to the present, a present with respect to the past, and a present with respect to the future.” Being present is living “in the flow,” as we would say today.
How time passes also depends on how we imagine it spatially. Most of the time, this is by means of a timeline in which the past is located on the left, the present in the middle, and the future on the right. This visualizes time as necessarily transient. In countries where reading is from right to left (Arabic, Hebrew), it is often the other way around. Time runs from right to left.
But the real question is: Why does time arise and disappear for us horizontally rather than vertically? Wouldn't the vertical, ascending time axis be the right image for a feeling that arises when something is going up, when there are new developments, changes, improvements that influence our lives, and which catapult us into the infinite space of possibilities? Space and time are not only mutually dependent on one another in physics. It’s due to the self-imposed limitations of the human imagination that we imagine time as a flyspeck, as if we are standing on a treadmill, that continuously slides to the left out of our field of vision.