Ghavri: Our Relationship with Time

Perpetual news and media alienate us from our relationship with time.

by Anmol Ghavri | 1/11/18 12:30am

When was the last time you sat down with pen and paper and wrote a letter to someone in your own unique and imperfect handwriting? When was the last time you sat down with a cup of coffee and a print newspaper to read about recent events?

Like many people my age, I rely on the invisible wings of 20th and 21st century technology to carry my messages instantaneously to my friends and loved ones. I almost exclusively rely on digital and broadcast journalism — especially notifications from iPhone applications and pages I follow on Facebook — to receive updates and stories on current events as they happen. These technologies have made staying in touch with loved ones, friends and current events more seamless and convenient than ever before and have undoubtedly made our lives better. But we should be more mindful as to how we use them and understand the adverse effects they can have on our lives.

President Donald Trump’s administration’s feverish first year and its symbiotic relationship with the 24/7 news cycle and conspicuous Facebook opining has made me reflective on how we perceive the passing and experience of a “global” time at the expense of “local” time. The constant communication, opining, “meme-ing” and instantaneous sharing of ostentatious news has served as a drug, displacing many from the historical human relationship with time. This relationship, rooted in localized goalposts and milestones, prioritized the local passing of events and time as well as our engagement with our own physical body and those in our immediate lived experiences, spaces and communities. In contrast, the passage of time in contemporary life is perceived by many through the lens of global events instigated through the agency of governments, politicians and cultural institutions. Additionally, many people, especially those my age, judge the progress and meaning of their lives against the artificial goalposts and conspicuous “doing of things” by their peers and celebrity personalities as shared on social media. The passage of time is no longer grounded in local events but distorted by a new global pace.

This global time alienates us because despite what media may portray, people live their lives locally and intimately through the communities we are active participants in — families, close friends, colleagues. No one actually has 1,000 or 1,500 friends in real life, though they may on Facebook. Yet we base the progress of our own lives on carefully curated snapshots of other people’s lives as shared on social media; we base our perception of time on our Facebook feeds off the pace set by 24/7 world news; we inevitably get hurt when our real lives don’t live up to these distorted standards.

In a July 2017 lecture at Dartmouth titled “Public Events, Private Lives,” Sir Salman Rushdie offered his perspective on how the modern 24/7 news cycle and general frenzy of contemporary life have altered our perceptual rooting in space and time. For most of human existence, people rarely knew anything outside of their direct and localized sphere of experienced life. With the printing press and ability to distribute novels and fiction with ease, Rushdie argued, the author became a vehicle for educating and communicating “truth” and knowledge about the human condition and how societies are or are not changing. In effect, novels and authors became the carriers of “news” regardless of how true it was, and the essence of current affairs were portrayed through the lens of fiction. Yet the state of the world was still carried slowly on the wings of printed books. Humans had an intimate and slow-burning relationship with the pace of “current events;” we still prioritized localized and intimate experiences and relationships with people in immediate vicinities and locales. We experienced our lives through these local benchmarks in time rather than those imposed globally and instantaneously.

This slower lifestyle did not just suddenly disappear but rather evolved slowly over centuries with the advent of daily newspapers, cable news, quicker and more advanced forms of transportation and new forms of instantaneous communication. Current arguments about the adverse effects of certain modern-day institutions and technologies like 24/7 broadcast news, smartphones and social media can often be made about earlier technologies like the telegraph and the wired phone. However, the technologies we have today have scaled up and exacerbated the adverse effects that quick communication and connection have on our human experience of the passing of time.

My critique of one alienating aspect of modern civilization is not meant to call for complete rejection of the technology and institutions facilitating instantaneous communication. Indeed, the internet age has bestowed numerous benefits on the world as a whole. Instantaneous communication has saved lives and has made information for the purposes of education, employment and otherwise improving lives widely and easily available and accessible. When used in certain ways, these technologies can actually facilitate maintenance of intimate and localized communities despite geographic distance. They have made humans more aware of the conditions of their brothers and sisters across the world and linked us despite cultural, social, national and religious differences.

My point, rather, is to call on each and every one of us to reclaim some form of our relationship with the localized passing of time. A great deal of our daily activities can be rethought to provide a more intimate relationship with people, regardless of physical distance, and a more sophisticated consumption of current events, without alienating us from our environments and communities.

Like most people, I am incredibly reliant on the very institutions and technologies that I critique. However, the comforts and conveniences that they provide do not exempt us from being more self-aware of the alienating effect they can and often do have in our lives. By being more mindful of how we use and consume certain technologies, we may be able to reconcile our experiences of the passing of “local” and “global” times.