Monday, 10 September 2012

It's about time

This is an experiment in vlogging.  What i'd normally write in this blog i've posted as a vlog entry on YouTube instead.

The video is about monochronic and polychronic time, and also refers to other aspects of attitudes to time which i didn't cover, but will here.  If you want to know what i have to say about education and polychronic and monochronic time, i suggest you watch the video.

One of the things i didn't go into is the distinction between linear and cyclical time and the directions in which these are seen as flowing.  Time for many literate English speakers is either seen as flowing from left to right or the observer is seen as moving forwards through time.  When seen as cyclical, that cycle is seen as clockwise.  Another aspect of English references to time is that they perceive fractions of units as having passed since the previous unit and tend to think in terms of time elapsed since the past more than time remaining until an event, though this is a fairly minor tendency compared to the others.  Time cycles in Anglo-Saxon perception also seem to be presented as vertically moving circles in front of the observer, for instance a clock face or circular calendar.

How could things be understood differently and what would it mean if they were?

Firstly, time could easily be seen as cyclical.  This would be particularly the case if we think in terms of waking and sleeping, seasons and the life cycle, and clearly personal and practical needs seem to be more satisfiable if time is thought of in this way.  It would also be possible to think of longer time periods in this way, such as the orbit of the Sun through the Galaxy or a possible oscillating Universe where the end wraps round to the beginning, a currently unpopular idea in cosmology, so scale is not the only issue. To me, this seems to be a more personal view of time than a linear view.  Permanence is more easily conceivable in a linear view, and as a result linear time can be seen as suggesting progress or regression, or simply directionlessness, whereas a wheel of time seems to be going somewhere in a predictable and repetitive way and all changes which are not given are temporary, but will return and are never permanently lost.

Progress and regression are clearly present in Western ways of looking at things.  Judaeo-Christian eschatology for a start sometimes sees history as starting with the creation of the Universe and ending with Armageddon, the Apocalypse and Doomsday.  This has been inherited into Marxism and progressive politics as looking forward to a Utopia here in the physical world.  Whereas i am a great believer in Utopia, this idea seems to be hijacked by groups and individuals pretending to be progressive which are in fact narrowly focussed on telling people whose lives they don't understand or empathise with what to do.  It's clear what i have in mind here but can be applied more widely.

Sticking with linear timeflow for a bit, it needn't be seen as passing events and the word "past" and similar words used in other languages such as "Vergangenheit" are not the only ways to refer to what has already happened.  As they stand, they clearly use a spatial metaphor which sees the subject as moving forwards and passing events, or in the German case, events which go past.  Similarly, the future is seen as in front of the subject.  This is an odd way of looking at it, because in general we have eyes in the front of our heads and see what's behind us less easily than what's in front - we have to turn our heads at least to do so.  However, our memories are clearer to us than what has yet to happen, so in a way it would be more logical to talk about the past as being in front of us and the future as behind, but into which we are moving in reverse.

An option might be to see time as moving from left to right in front of us, which makes time seem like a story because we write and read from right to left.  This temporal metaphor is reflected in the progress bar for the video at the beginning of this post, and it might lead us to think of a period as as having a story-like beginning, middle and end, which is not always so.  It could also proceed in the opposite direction but we rarely use this because we write the other way.

My view of time is that we are falling face upwards into the future.  Time moves downwards because it's an irresistible force like gravity, we can see the past better than the future and time goes faster as we age, so that strikes me as the most straightforward way of seeing it, but it's easy to see that as quite negative because falling for decades will end in death, the past is more significant than anything else and there seems to be no foresight or free will.  The alternative in that dimension would be rising face down like a rocket or helium balloon, something i haven't explored.

Turning to cyclical time, it seems to me that clockwise or counterclockwise time are equal.  The difference there is insignificant because space itself is not essentially left- or right-handed, so time isn't either, though space at least can be made "crooked" and given a direction as discussed in 'Here Be Dragons'.  Linear time has direction built in but cyclical time lacks it.

To simplify cyclical time, the subject could be moving with it, giving it a side view, observing it like a clock face or doing so as a sundial, or even standing motionless at its centre while it moves around one.  This last aspect corresponds to our experience of the daily cycle and the seasons, and feels like we are involved in it, as does the passivity of being taken for a ride through time, though that ride is in a way more reassuring than the linear ride since both past and future are known.  Clockfaces are like sundials, so looking down and across seems to make little difference to perception:  they would be omniscient but detached views of time.  A slight difference is the sense of superiority one might feel at looking down on cyclical time.  The other option is hard to conceive.  The wheel of time is seen from the side, "passing" horizontally or vertically.  These give the impression of being half-hidden, which corresponds again to our mortality or the fact that we are not constantly awake.  With the vertical view, direction is significant because half of time is then not only advancing and the other half receding, but also overlapping other halves are rising and falling, and it depends on the orientation whether that rising and falling is visible or invisible.  Vertical time is also more significantly divided into top and bottom halves, one advancing, the other receding.

There are also intermediate wheels of time which are diagonal or oblique, which are harder to conceive!

One thing i've not mentioned here is the question of past, present and future as such and another, which I think is hugely significant, is the issue of making temporally asymmetrical assumptions as expressed by such phrases as "any more", "nowadays" or "turned a corner".