Moving from one point to another on the same spacetime continuum —time travel —is a theory that has been explored in literature, philosophy, and science. Time travelers move across different eras, from the present to the past, or from the past to the future. Like aspirations for air travel or conquering space once were, time travel is perhaps one of humankind’s most daring, ambitious, and haunting dreams.
The book that changed everything
The idea of time travel was born in literature before inventors and technology could begin to explore it. Herbert George Wells, who is considered one of the fathers of science fiction along with Jules Verne, was among the first to talk about time travel. In 1895, Wells published The Time Machine, the story of an inventor who builds a device to travel across the fourth dimension, reaching the year 802,701 and getting the chance to meet The Eloi people. While Wells’ novel launched a new fiction genre, he was not the first to write about people moving across time. In 1733, Samuel Madden had released Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, about a guardian angel who carries diplomatic letters written by future British representatives in 1997 and 1998 to the year 1728. But in Madden’s novel, as in Charles Dickens’ 1843 work, A Christmas Carol, time travel was a literary artifice to talk about something else, such as showing the future consequences of choices.
The film industry soon followed this exploration of time travel. Wells’ novel was adapted for cinema in 1960, leading to an endless list of movies that followed it. There are the classics, like Doctor Who, or Star Trek, not to mention Robert Zemeckis’ blockbuster Back to the Future—and who hasn’t dreamt of driving the glorious DeLorean? Since screenplays are expected to be entertaining, engaging, scary, or moving, but not necessarily scientifically accurate, these screenwriters and directors have enjoyed a certain degree of creative freedom to make time travel possible on the big screen. This has led to the blossoming of many variations on the theme, such as “time slip,” a plot device in which characters travel across time by unknown means as in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, or in the Italian comedy Nothing Left to Do But Cry. “Time loop” is another plot device where characters are trapped in a temporal cage where they are forced to relive the same experience over and over again, as in Groundhog Day, or Duncan Jones’ Source Code. But these imaginary worlds deceive us: time travel “does not exist, it cannot.” wrote James Gleick, in Time Travel: A History, which may be the most entertaining, complete, vivid, and intriguing account of how this hubristic dream was born and raised.
A paradoxical journey
Playing with time is no cheap thrill. It can have serious consequences and lead to paradoxes, which have inspired writers and philosophers. One of the most famous philosophical examples is the “Butterfly Effect”—the theory that the slightest change to the past, like an apparently meaningless butterfly’s wing beat, can lead to incremental changes which deeply affect the present. But if we could go back in time would we feel entitled to change it? And would those changes transform the present or would they instead modify a parallel universe (such as in the movie Sliding Doors)?
This challenging question is also posed by future travelers: What would we do with the information that we gained by time-traveling? Would we ignore it, or use it to change the present, and in so doing also change the future? The theme of precognition and other temporal anomalies was first explored by John Boynton Priestley in his 1964 essay Man and Time about future travels through dreaming. Trying to understand the present based on future plausible events has deep and troubling ethical implications, as described in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, where police use psychic technology to arrest and convict murderers before they commit crimes.
From grandad to Einstein
A major and almost unsolvable dilemma for those studying the plausibility of time travel is the “grandfather paradox”: if a time traveler goes to the past and kills their grandfather, then the traveler would never be born. This paradox shows that backward time travel necessarily causes interferences in the chain of events that would make that travel possible. Scientists, however, are trying to find the conditions under which this paradox can be neutralized.
In pre-modern physics, traveling across time, especially to the past, was almost impossible. This followed the belief that time was a constant, unidirectional flow of events, with a cause/effect relationship that could not be inverted. If you catch some fish, you can cook fish soup, but it’s impossible to get live fish back from a steaming plate. This “arrow of time” was first explored by British astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1927 and is still a disputed question of physics. Pivotal to this theory is the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, which says that while moving forward in time, the entropy of an isolated system increases and never decreases. Nature seems to love complexity over simplicity. For that reason, time travel—especially backward had to be ruled out, until Albert Einstein came along and changed everything.
The time isn’t right
Einstein, the father of modern physics, helped to redefine our concept of time. Einstein and other scientists before him discussed time as the fourth dimension of space, outside of our world defined by height, length, and width. Together, these dimensions comprise the spacetime continuum, where strange things can happen. The way objects and beings experience time depends on the relationship between space and their speed. Through his 1905 Theory of Special Relativity, Einstein showed that the speed of light in a vacuum was independent of the speed of its observers. In 1915, he followed this concept with his Theory of General Relativity, where he found that massive objects cause a distortion in spacetime, like gravity. The concept of “gravitational time dilation” means that time moves more slowly as gravity increases. The 1971 Hafele-Keating experiment tested these concepts with four atomic clocks, which were flown twice around the world, each in different directions, and then compared to atomic clocks at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. The experiment found that the clocks read different times, suggesting that gravity can bend time, if only by a few nanoseconds.
If we could travel at the speed of light, then we could then move forward in time. “Indeed, we can jump forward into the future as much as we want. It’s only a matter of going really, really fast,” Ohio State University’s Paul Sutter told Space.com in an article about time travel. But there’s one reason to restrain our enthusiasm for time travel: reaching the speed of light will destroy the mass of a traveling body. Einstein’s equations also open the door to backward time travel: he describes the spacetime continuum as a fabric that can be bent, thus creating a wormhole, a tunnel connecting distant points. We can picture this path as a kind of highway which could be traveled both ways: to the future and to the past.
Prophecies and conspiracies
The problem is that the nearest wormhole could be thousands of light-years away and we’d need an incredible amount of energy to leave it open long enough for time travelers to safely pass through it and complete the journey. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking explored the idea of wormholes in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, published just a few months before his death. He wrote that “rapid space travel and travel back in time can’t be ruled out according to our present understanding… So the only way to get from one side of the galaxy to the other in reasonable time would seem to be if we could warp spacetime so much that we created a little tube or wormhole… Such wormholes have been seriously suggested as being within the capabilities of a future civilization.” But some say that future is already here. American lawyer Andrew Basiago claims that he was a time traveler for the US Government through what he calls Project Pegasus, in the 1980s. Basiago, a self-professed chrononaut, claims to have also met President Barack Obama (under the name of Barry Soetero), who he says was also in the program along with eight others. Conspiracy theories about time travel abound and multiply, leading to more confusion than an answer to the question: Will humans ever turn back time?
What moment would you relive if you could travel back in time?
For American theoretical physicist, Ronald Mallett, the answer is simple—he’d go back to being a 10-year-old living in The Bronx, New York. He’d give his father a hug, and tell him that he loves him. This idea of traveling back in time, however, is more than a fantasy for Mallett; it’s a mathematical model that proves that bending time is possible. And it’s a theory that he developed over 45 years in secret—because the professor was afraid that people might think that he was crazy.
The quest to build a time machine began for Mallet at age 10, when his father, Boyd Mallett, died of a massive heart attack. When Ronald saw a five-cent drugstore magazine with an illustration of a time machine on its cover, he tried to overcome his grief, by recreating that time machine, using his television repairman father’s tools, wires, transformers, coils, and cables. While the apparatus looked like the picture on the magazine “it didn’t work, of course,” said Mallett. But something he read on those pages, stuck with him: “Scientific people know very well that time is just a kind of space. We can move forward and backward in time, just as we can in space.”
“That was the moment when it clicked for me,” said Mallett. “If I could move backward in time, then maybe I could have a chance of seeing him again, telling him what was going to happen, and changing everything.”
From then on, the budding scientist who was also a voracious reader had a singular mission—build a time machine and see his father again. As a 12-year-old, he went on to read and study Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity, which explain the relationships among space, gravity, and time. This led to an obsession with the German theoretical-physicist’s work and eventually motivated Mallett to earn a Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University in physics and become a tenured professor at the University of Connecticut.
The young Mallett’s father had no way of knowing that he was priming his son for his quest to time travel, by instilling in him a love of reading and mathematics, even making him complete multiplication tables to receive his allowance each week. As Mallett, who was the oldest of four children in his family, explains his theory, there is no doubt that it is based on real science, not only a scene from one of the professor’s favorite films, Back to the Future.
In 2000, Mallett became somewhat of a celebrity, when he produced a paper outlining the research that he had been working on for more than four decades. It solved Einstein’s gravitational field equations for circulating beams of light in a ring laser, showing that roving lasers can drag time into a closed loop, which is suitable for time travel. Mallet further explained that it has been shown mathematically that loops in time are possible through black holes. Black holes served as Mallett’s “coverup” for his time machine work while building his reputation as a physics professor. “By studying black holes, I was legitimately crazy, as opposed to time travel, which was considered crazy crazy,” said Mallett.
Although Mallett’s mathematics are solid—his theory was the cover story of New Scientist magazine in 2001—he said his colleagues question how technology will catch up to this discovery. He said creating a prototype of his time machine will cost thousands of dollars. “Scientifically, it’s possible, but technologically, it is going to be difficult to build a time machine,” said Mallett. “But that’s how science works, it seems simple, but it’s not.”
The fascination with Mallett’s work has even reached Hollywood, and his story has been optioned to be made into a feature film—although he can’t share the details yet. The professor said he’s most looking forward to the chance to relive time with his father on the big screen.
Mallett said that other than seeing our deceased loved ones again, the ability to send information backward could be one of the greatest benefits of time travel when it happens. “Imagine if we could send information back to ourselves, to warn ourselves about climate disasters. Think about the thousands of lives that we could save,” said Mallett. “These are things that could alter our past in a way that could alter our future. I think it would be one of the most important achievements of the human race, to be able to control time.”
Although Mallett hasn’t built a time machine, he has received dozens of emails from people all over the world, asking him to communicate with their dead loved ones—much like the dream that led the young Mallett on his quest to relive history. One email was from a German man who asked the professor if he could send information to his daughter, who died in a car crash. Mallett told the man that he shared in his grief, but that he doesn’t have a time machine, but instead a mathematical model that shows the possibility of time travel. However, Mallett also wrote to the man that eventually time travel will be possible. In the meantime, he said: “Time is one of the most important things that we have, and I think we need to realize, even without time travel, how precious it is.”
George Widener likens himself to a “time traveler” creating mixed-media works that give visible form to complex calculations based on dates and historical events. A self-taught artist, he is highly visible in the contemporary art arena with works in the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands, and the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.
You have an amazing ability to mentally calculate the days of the week and play with numbers. How did this process start and develop for you?
It all came from my past; I have been able to do it all my life, since I was a child. But in the 1980s, I had some problems, I was by myself, and I was doing it more and more as a pastime to try to make some sense of my world.
How did you realize that you could channel this ability into art?
I think it took some time for me to become creative. As a child, I used to make a list of dates — but I wasn’t being creative with that. I have always loved to draw. Ever since I was a child, I’d draw objects from memory, like trees or cars. As I got older, I became more creative, but still, I didn’t think of it as art.
So what happened then?
From 1986 to 1994, I was what they call an outsider artist — which is somebody doing something for himself without thinking about other people. Things began to change around 2000 when the art dealer Henry Boxer started to exhibit my work in London, and from then on I was in galleries. But I wasn’t trying to show in a gallery or anything like that; they found me.
Do you usually plan the idea behind your artworks, or are your ideas more spontaneous?
I have some ideas and then I’ll have a dream about them, so the answer will come to me in the dream. And then, I will have a dream about some other ideas. Sometimes people are very creative right before they go to sleep, that is when you’re not awake, but also not fully asleep. Ideas come to me in that in-between time. It was more frequent in the past when I didn’t talk a lot with people and I wasn’t social very much, now I have a more balanced life.
Do you have any recurrent subjects that interest you or specific images that catch your attention to create new work?
Memory plays a huge role in my work. With dates, it’s just an inner landscape; to me, it’s like a rhythm or something that I do for myself. But if I happen to see something, then it plays around in my head and I think it has to do with my childhood. I was a late bloomer, I didn’t speak until I was like three or four years old, so at first I had to think in pictures.
In your Titanic series, you have displayed lots of numbers and information related to history. How did you research that project?
Titanic is a historical event but also a very emotional one. I became very interested in it, and it was a way for me to try to express some feelings. I would just collect information through books while some others I have in my memory. I still remember that Titanic is 882.2 feet long—it just sticks in my head.
How much do you think your disorder affected your art?
In my family, there were some cases of autism but some of them had real gifts. I can remember days, but I’m not disabled. I had the chance to meet Kim Peek, he had the best memory of anybody and he could memorize everything he read, but his father had to take care of him until the end. That meeting made me realize that I’m very lucky.
Do you draw every day?
I can’t say that I draw every day but I do have the need to draw. When I was younger, I was obsessed with what to do. I wasn’t doing it for some sort of vocation, I did it because I had to, it just came out of me. I have to draw at least every few days or I start to become anxious or a bit nervous.
Is there a specific meaning behind your artwork?
I believe in the future technology of the singularity, the idea that machines will one day have true human-like intelligence. I like to believe that some of the things that I do will be appreciated.
If someone could look at my work and quickly calculate the thousands of dates and how I move them around and find connections, they might appreciate them like a puzzle or a crossword puzzle.
It seems like there are some calculations within your artwork that cannot be solved right now.
There is a concept in mathematics called the Magic Square, which is simply a four-by-four grid of numbers and it can create an equal sum in all directions. I took that magic square and mixed it with dates, turning it into a magic time square. I believe that future artificial intelligence could do something similar—they will find patterns like that. I can only calculate dates one at a time, but machines with rapid calculation could discover hidden geometrical patterns that could have some meaning or relevance for the future.
In your drawings, could patterns of numbers predict the future?
I played around with this idea with a little bit of humor. Magic squares have been used to make predictions in the past, but only with numbers. I was filling the magic squares with dates for past accidents or floods and then I would have a few that opened to future dates to complete it.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I’m interested in the work of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. He wrote short stories mostly about floods but the ideas behind them were very interesting and inspired movies like The Matrix, Minority Report, and Blade Runner. I like to try to see my calendars in the same way—not just mathematical but also with mystery and psychology.
How do you envision the society of the future?
I like to be optimistic and think that there will be great technological changes in the distant future. I would like to positively believe that machines are going to see us as parents or that they can live with us. And that many problems can be solved with greater intelligence. But I’m also aware of the other side, the dystopian idea that machines decide they don’t need us or that people are destroying the environment.
Where did you find the inspiration for your time machine?
I originally studied mechanical engineering. I had good grades, but I didn’t finish. I do love machines and their details, I love drawing machines. I was just contemplating that idea of whether or not time travel truly is possible. I haven’t tried to really build a time machine, but I know that time exists in a multi-dimensional way that we can’t comprehend.
If you could travel in the past or the future, where would you go?
I’m a big fan of certain times in the past. Who wouldn’t want to go back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci and shake his hand?
How would you explain the concept of time in your drawings?
My time is dynamic, not static; it’s evolving. For me, dates are continually shifting and I’m always exploring the different ways that they balance, the ways that they are in harmony, the ways that they are opposed to each other. I am continually exploring their similarities and differences.
My work evolves because I choose to listen and to try to write down what I’m seeing in my dreams as well as when I’m awake.
“The instant of a photograph is eminently paradoxical. When we snap a photograph, like when we cut, our camera captures a tiny portion of time, placing it in a different dimension from that where human life leaves its record, in an infinite and frozen timeframe.”
Photography historian critic Roberta Valtorta portrays a fascinating phenomenon in her essay The Technological Time of Photography. On the one hand, photography is made of choices concerning time (for example, the shutter speed or the time to shoot), while on the other hand, the image obtained hardly seems to represent time, but only suggest it. We perceive it, as Giovanni Ziliani wrote, ”by observing the changing exterior, the relationship between representations, and the succession of earlier and later.”
Over the years, Roberta Valtorta has developed a critical reflection on the relationship between time and photography, together with Leonardo Brogioni, a photographer, journalist, and professor of photography. For both, the relationship translates into a sequence of frozen moments, a series of changing images due to prolonged or multiple exposures. Photography, using time, obtains pictures in which time itself struggles to stand out.
LB – Quoting Ziliani again: “Photography is made in the presence of light, and this is the present. The figures of the present do not stand still; they have a restless substance, are characterized by changeability, and are constantly changing. They do have a substance, but at the same time they also have the weak characteristic of transformation; the present is imbued with past and future.” Photographer Daniel Blaufuks goes so far as to say that there is nothing but the past and the future: it is the present, in fact, that does not exist.
However, according to our conventional understanding, photography is a means capable of freezing an instant in the flow of time, stopping the present forever. This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson conceptualized in his book, The decisive moment: “To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of the visually perceived forms that give it meaning.” According to Roland Barthes’ more extreme reasoning, the immobilization of time manifests itself in photography in an excessive, monstrous way, in such a way as to make time “obstructed.” In this sense, the history of photography appears to be a struggle against time.
RV – The history of photography is part of humankind’s cultural history. All our culture, all we have invented and even thought of is a fight against time, or more precisely against death. Just as are music, literature, art, and science. Thanks to its presumed “exactness,” to its ability to relate instantly and directly with reality as it is in motion and continually changing, photography seemed to be a particularly suitable tool to measure time, stop it, and hand down moments of life and history.
So what about motion pictures? Cinema can recount time, and how events develop, while photography can at most capture change in a single fixed, blocked, and rigid image. And yet, this absurd stasis is its strength, because a shot confronts us with a tiny fragment of time frozen and stopped forever as if it had been killed.
LB – In Italian, the words “istantanea” or “scatto” are used as synonyms of the word photograph, to emphasize its speed of execution, and immediateness. And so we are always examining its temporal element, which has often led to photography being considered a lesser art, inferior to other forms of expression. According to John Berger a British art critic, novelist, and painter, “A drawing contains the time of its own making, and this means that it possesses its own time, independent of the living time of what it portrays. The photograph, by contrast, receives almost instantaneously–usually at a speed that cannot be perceived by the human eye. The only time contained in a photograph is the isolated instant of what it shows.
Moreover, the time that exists within a drawing is not uniform. The artist gives more time to what she or he considers important. A face is likely to contain more time than the sky above it. The time in a drawing accrues according to human value. In a photograph, time is uniform: every part of the image has been subjected to a chemical process of uniform duration. Every drawing, in order to recreate appearances, has recourse to a language, while photography does not possess a language. Photographs do not translate from the appearance of reality: they quote from it. It is because photography has no language of its own, because it quotes rather than translates, that it is said that the camera cannot lie. It cannot lie because it prints directly.”
So is this a defeat of photography in the fight against time?
RV – Actually, photography is just a different and particular way of relating to time. And it depends on what kind of photography we’re talking about. If we are talking about a so-called “shot,” typical of speedy reporting, we are dealing with a limited amount of time, a point in time, the duration of a so-called “instant.” If instead we are talking about posing photography, we have a different situation: it is a more stratified, denser time, and the image becomes pensive, substantial. If we consider images that are set up, designed, and slowly detailed, they contain a long time, which gives them body and makes them seem weightier and denser. Not to mention the use of blurring, which makes layers of time visible and even lets us analyze them. Photography’s battle against time is complex.
LB – A photograph can be raw material (such as news or editorial images, which are essential for an information newspaper) or a finished work (as a work of photographic research, to be hung on the wall of an art collector’s house). Sometimes the same photograph plays both roles. What collector would not want to own a picture taken by Robert Capa during the Spanish war and published in Life magazine? In this case, a journalistic image, created and used to inform, has become a work of art, without any further intervention, but only thanks to the passing of time. Capa intended to document the event without any artistic intent, but that happened despite his intention, and his photograph became capable of shifting the past into the future.
After all, it’s time that takes the picture, it’s time that is frozen inside it, it is time that is awakened in the viewer’s mind, it is time that determines whether a photograph is a work of art. But is it really time that decides whether that photograph is memory, science, information, emotion, or spirituality?
RV – It’s time that decides, it’s history. For some decades now, we have witnessed continuous instances of “artification” of reality: many human expressions, the most varied, not considered art, become so. Photography is one of them; it also occurs with design, fashion, and journalistic writing. And so it can occur that documentaries or industrial photos are considered art while previously they were seen as professional means. This process is spurred by the market, which is omnivorous and needs many products, but in the past, it has happened to some great photographers like Atget or Weegee.
LB – Some authors have attempted to measure time with an almost scientific approach, others with a metalinguistic perspective, going beyond the subject they have photographed to reflect on the photographic medium itself and its ability to analyze time. This is the case of Ugo Mulas and his Verification 3.
Some have recovered moments from the past, giving them a new meaning, to visually support recollection and memory. By combining photos taken at different times, overlapping or intersecting fragments of pictures from different eras, using technical devices that create a filter between camera and subject and recall the flash-back. While others have worked on the flow of time experienced to express feelings, emotions, changes, moods, intimacy–a fluid time, in motion, made of double exposures, blurred, out of focus, and multiple exposures that make different moments coexist in the same frame.
RV – And we must add photomontage, which brings together pieces of images that belong to different times, and staged photography, which contains a very long time made using digital processes in which time multiplies and can no longer be defined. Lastly, I would like to mention the recovery of existing images, which already contain their own original time, but when they are reused, are revitalized, transformed into other images, so as to contain another time that is even more distinct and even more complex.
LB – Photography has always been proof of the occurrence of an event, the truthfulness and credibility of an event. The existence of a photograph meant that the event really existed. Until nowadays, however. In fact, several technological innovations are undermining this certainty: post-production software like Photoshop, and algorithmic programs able to create credible photographs of faces that do not really exist. The website thispersondoesntexist.com shows a photographic portrait of a different person at each page refresh. The website’s artificial intelligence draws information from various databases of real photographic portraits to fabricate new ones. The pictures are then compared with similar images to verify their closeness to reality and therefore their credibility. This process will also lead to increasingly sophisticated levels of the details in the photographs created by artificial intelligence (backgrounds, settings, expressions, combinations). And soon we’ll have fake images that are hard to distinguish from real ones. After all, in your essay, you wrote: “The time of photography is the time of technology, and this the only way the photographer is measured, whatever his intent.” What’s next?
RV The time of photography and of all contemporary images is absolutely technological. Walter Benjamin spoke of the “optical unconscious,” Franco Vaccari of the “technological unconscious”: it means a time completely determined by devices and programs that in an increasingly refined way structure our perception, our experience, our memory, or what remains of it. Humankind is also transformed, not just the techniques and technologies that have accompanied and indeed shaped its history. I believe that the coexistence, or rather the interweaving between human life and technology will become stronger and stronger. Technology will become a part of us, of our own bodies. It will be a different and brand new dimension, which I do not yet know how to gauge.
If you want to be transported to another time and place, all you need to do is pick up a video game controller. Imagine entering the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2). You turn on the game and step into the shoes of outlaw Arthur Morgan in a massive western world. Now, you have to learn what actions you can perform in the game (walking, riding, shooting, tracking animals, and a long etcetera) and what rules govern the outcomes of these actions (for instance, shooting a gun in the wilderness will elicit a different reaction from the game world than doing it in the middle of a town teeming with virtual characters).
Actions inside video games must necessarily unfold in time — just moving from A to B in RDR2’s vast map, for example, can take several minutes, and its dueling demands precise timing and coordination. Our senses of vision, sound, and touch have dedicated organs (our eyes, ears, and skin) and mental modules (the visual, auditory, and somatosensory cortices). In contrast, time perception lacks a specialized organ and brain region — it is a system that is distributed throughout the brain. We experience time indirectly while processing information from our other senses. This means that our experience of time can be easily influenced by other aspects of our perception. A typical example of how time perception is affected by video games is that players tend to underestimate how much time they have spent playing. This is closely related to a mental state known as flow. When a video game world gets hold of a player’s attention, demanding intense concentration, and providing immediate feedback, the player loses track of time. This state of mind can be experienced in a variety of activities, such as sports, dancing, and playing analog games like chess.
Achieving a state of flow, however, is not just a matter of grabbing a controller and playing any game. Some video games are better than others at eliciting flow and attaining this state also depends on the player’s preferences and skills. Furthermore, to achieve a state of flow players typically need to train their skills within the game. With enough experience, players can stop consciously thinking about their actions and can act in an automatic way that is conducive to flow.
To this end, another aspect of time perception is necessary: our past as it is recorded in long-term memory. On the one hand, we possess explicit or declarative memory. The type of information stored in explicit memory is characterized by our ability to talk about it: Dates, phone numbers, what you did this morning. On the other hand, we also have procedural or implicit memory. This type of knowledge is not easy to convey verbally because it is related to procedures that we execute automatically. One example is muscle memory, which is involved in activities like riding a bicycle. You couldn’t teach anyone to ride a bicycle by describing verbally how it is done; they need to hop on one and start practicing. Using a game controller and learning the button configurations of a specific game works in the same way. Since first-time players have not yet developed the muscle memory to deftly use their controller, they commonly look down from the screen at their controller when they need to react to a challenge. This leads to slower reaction times and a sub-par gaming performance. Experienced players can move through the game world without even glancing down once — with their eyes completely fixated on the screen. But even players accustomed to a controller need to learn the button to start a particular action and incorporate novel button combinations and sequences into their repertoire for any new game they start playing.
This acquisition of memories also allows us to improve another temporal skill: prediction; our best attempt at seeing the future. By practicing with a video game and acquiring more information about its virtual world, players can make better decisions. That is, the more a player knows about the rules that govern a virtual world, the better they will anticipate the consequences of their actions and arrive at the outcome they are seeking.
The famous tile-matching puzzle game Tetris is a classic example of how memory and prediction can factor into a gamer’s success. As pieces fall on the screen, players start anticipating how the tiles will fit in the overall pattern so that they can complete rows for points. Armed with prior game knowledge, they can make better decisions that allow them to maximize their score. For example, a somewhat experienced Tetris player will realize that closing four rows at the same time gives them more points than closing a single row. As a result, they might pile tetrominoes while leaving a gap for the long, vertical piece. Once this gap has reached a height of four rows, the player can use the next long piece to fill it. Additionally, as players progresses in Tetris, the pieces start falling faster. Procedural memory allows players to act swiftly under the pressure of rapidly falling tetrominoes without needing to consciously reflect on their actions. This sort of predictive thinking applies to virtually any game.
This leads me to the concept of time perspective. We can think of time as travelling through a landscape, with the past behind us, the present immediately around us, and the future ahead of us. To develop strategies such as creating a gap for the vertical pieces in Tetris to acquire more points, we need a future-oriented time perspective. We avoid the immediate reward of closing one line and instead take a risk, to get a greater pay-off later, by closing four lines at once. Self-control and its relation to time perception is a key element of many video games, including strategy games like Civilization and survival horror games like Resident Evil.
Video games can also introduce features that alter the way space and time behave within the confines of their virtual worlds. One of my favorite games is Portal, an ideal example of how entering an alternate world of gaming can warp a player’s sense of time. In this game the player controls Chell, a woman who is used as a guinea pig by the AI GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) to test a portal gun. The game presents a series of test chambers with different puzzles that must be solved by using this sci-fi contraption that, as the name specifies, shoots portals. Only two portals can be open at any time: a blue and an orange one. When Chell walks into one of these portals, she instantly walks out of the other. Portals can be placed on opposite sides of a room, bending space and consequently shortening the time it takes to move from one point to the other. We enter a game like Portal with preconceptions and expectations about how space and time work in real life. As we interact with the game and gather information on the mechanics of portals, we construct new mental models of how portals work and become better at predicting solutions for the game’s puzzles. Working with predictions allows us to simulate outcomes in our mind and avoid tiresome trial and error sessions.
Portal is a special case in which time can be warped by bending space. But there is a more widespread way in which video games defy the logic of time. Take the case of a first-person shooter like Half-Life. In this game, the protagonist Gordon Freeman battles an interdimensional invasion. While fighting against the creatures trespassing into his plane, Freeman will often die. Death in the fictional world of Half-Life is final, just as in the real world. But, since it is a video game, players can load a previously saved game state whenever Freeman dies and attempt to overcome the failed challenge again. That is, players can travel back in time inside the game and use the knowledge they acquired about future events to succeed. Myriad games allow this temporal stunt: In the Super Mario Bros. series, if a player loses a life, they have to go back to the beginning of the level they are traveling through, like turning back the page of a book. Other games include the capacity of turning back time, as a player character’s skill. In Life is Strange, Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old photography student, discovers that she can rewind time, leading her to rethink her every choice. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the protagonist can use the titular sands stored inside his dagger to undo events. Whether as part of the fictional world or as a mechanic external to it, time travel is a common occurrence in video games.
Video games can also help us understand the complex workings of physical time. In A Slower Speed of Light, developed by MIT’s Game Lab, a character on an extraterrestrial planet collects orbs to progressively decrease the speed of light. Making light travel more slowly means that the character is at some point walking almost at the speed of light without having to move faster. As a consequence, the effects of special relativity, which are out of bounds for normal human perception, suddenly become visible. For example, space warps around the character and the Doppler effect, which we commonly experience with sound waves when a car drives by, can be observed with light as well. Games like this one can help players better understand the physics of time and space.
Time perception involves phenomena like duration, sequence, simultaneity, memory (past), prediction (future), and the experience of the present. Video games engage many aspects of time perception to entertain us with their rules and fictional worlds. Games can also influence our perception of time by making it pass faster or presenting us with impossible temporal mechanics that warp our reality. While video games are most commonly known for engaging our senses through hyper-realistic or highly-stylized graphics and sound design, how they impinge our perception of time is also a central theme. In the context of gaming, time is most commonly discussed in relation to flow and duration (hours seem like minutes). But video games can affect our perception of time in several other ways that are essential to the enthralling aesthetic experiences that they offer.
Narration and time bending are two sides of the same coin — to some extent, we could say that one is the extension of the other: sequence, eventfulness, rhythm, and causality are all crucial narrative elements. What if, then, we took the most popular narration format of the 10’s — TV series — and looked at how they confront temporality?
The elements we’ll use for this experiment are Lost (ABC, 2004-2010), Dark (Netflix, 2017- present), The OA (Netflix, 2016-2019), and Adventure Time (Cartoon Network, 2010-2018) — four iconic series that explore the inconsistencies of time in relation to the human experience: In each of them, time is chewed, bendend, and molded, devoid of its traditional meaning, and finally brought back to the viewer through narration.
There’s an aspect to TV series that question time itself: They seem to both answer a human need for an ideological belief, and echo an existential question — what are we, outside of our story? Outside of our time? In his book Sculpting in Time, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky argues that our moral identities are built within time and destroyed by death, because the life (time) of someone who dies becomes inaccessible to those who survive. “Time is what constitutes the conditions for the “I” to exist,” writes Tarkovskij.
Therefore, time as we experience it is mostly a narration that has to constantly deal with existence as an absurd, but undeniable fact. And out of time constraints we have no bonds with a shared morality; out to time, and out of narration, we go insane. This concept is perfectly embodied by the character Desmond Hume, in Lost. The island where Hume lives, and where Oceanic Airlines flight 815 crashed at the beginning of the series, doesn’t exist on any map, doesn’t seem to answer to basic laws of nature (a polar bear in the middle of the jungle?) and, more importantly, doesn’t respond to the laws of physics. There, time is messed up, and so is space.
The island is a conundrum, a paradox that causes insanity. Which is precisely what happens to Hume in the fifth episode of season 4, “The Constant,” when he begins experiencing strange flashback. His mind, his consciousness, starts travelling through time, as a side effect of overexposure to the island’s extreme electromagnetism. Before Hume’s brain melts from the stress of having no time boundaries, he needs to find a constant that exists in both of his realities. It is something that he deeply cares about. It’s something that he knows. It’s something that can tell his story for him, ultimately keeping him anchored to the series’ narrative thread. That constant is Hume’s lover, Penelope, who will wait eight years for a phone call, accepting to believe an idea that is completely absurd, out of love.
Something similar happens in The OA — a Netflix original series about death and different dimensions written and directed by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. The OA opens with a mysterious young woman named Prairie Johnson, who one day disappears only to reappear out of thin air seven years later — the problem is, when she went missing she was blind, but when she comes back she can see. Later in the episode, Johnson befriends a group of people and rounds them up in an abandoned house, asking them to help her save other missing people through a portal to another dimension. When the characters manage to jump “out of their time” to travel to another reality, their identities are preserved because each of them remembers the others: they know they’ve just travelled, they recognize each other as guests in the new timeline, because they share the memories of the previous one. A shared madness — they all end up in a mental facility — becomes their truth. The only character who can’t seem to awaken his previous self has to wait for his true love to call for him.
Another illustrative (but gloomy) example of the connection between narration and insanity, is provided by Dark — the first Netflix original series produced in Germany and co-created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, that explores the relationships between four families in a small German nuclear town, where a young boy has suddenly disappeared. When Ulrich Nielsen — the father of the missing boy — tries to go back to the 1980s to find his son, he actually ends up in the 1950s, where no one knows him or believes his story, so he’s put in an asylum. Meanwhile, his son Mikkel, who grew up in the ‘80s as Michael Kahnwald, snaps and commits suicide the day his young self disappears again in the present. Fair warning: There’s a twist; but, still, for most of the show Mikkel is mentally scattered: His life is a paradox, precisely because his story doesn’t obey time constraints.
Interestingly, Dark is also the series where ideology is more explicitly represented: There’s a religious cult, guided by the mysterious figure of Adam, who declares the ultimate war on time, because “God is nothing more than time itself. Not a thinking, acting entity. A physical law, with which one can negotiate as little as one can with one’s own fate. God is time. And time is not merciful.” Adam echoes the Greek definition of time, represented as the pre-olympic god Chronos: someone who devours whatever he creates. But by trying to destroy the quintessential ideology (God), he’s creating another one which traps Dark’s characters in inescapable loops.
The greatest narrations of humanity’s history have been religious and political ideologies — sets of normative beliefs that people would subscribe to without awareness. When television became widespread, it offered a new form of ideological belief, much more subtle and flexible than any holy war or social revolt, and it began serving a new mass since its first appearance in our lives. Some of us would schedule our lives around it, and look for answers inside it; for some, whatever television would say was unquestioned and unquestionable — as the words of a priest would be. When TV series came, they implemented the last missing piece of the picture: the epic tales we need to experience the cathartic process of emotional involvement. TV series are the object that can do the praying for us — to which we can delegate our “duty of compassion for the heroes,” as slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology. Because a good story can help us forget the unbearable suspicion that nothing makes sense.
Many series have such a devoted following that they could be compared to a religious movement. People may get tattoos of or name their children after their most beloved characters, they might gather online to discuss the latest episode like worshipers in a church. Series are, more than any other media, a new mythology for us, a new book of saints. But Lost, Dark, and The OA, bring something more to the table: A self-reflecting question. What is the point of a story, if no one believes it? What happens to time, when no one can access it, and remember it?
Lost is a phenomena not only because it brought to TV the most unrepentant of cliffhangers. It presented a mystery and declared it unsolvable — the only possibility was to live through it with someone else.
Dark resembles a Sophoclean tragedy: like Oedipus — who fulfills the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother exactly by trying to avoid it — young Jonas can’t escape falling for his aunt and killing his own father. Because people trapped in a loop will inevitably keep committing the same errors, no matter how well they think they know their future and past. Dark showcases a time paradox as a matter of disconnection between people: anything unsolved in the past — a memory no one listened to — will haunt the bearer of the secret in the present or future.
For the first 57 minutes of The OA, no one knows what Prairie Johnson has been through. We know she’s not well, possibly delusional. But when she gathers her new friends and finally starts telling her story, only then do the opening credits start to roll. The series is going meta here: Johnson tells her story to her audience asking them to believe her, unconditionally, and so we, too, the viewers, must.
In their belief, the characters of The OA find a higher purpose: in a sense, they manage to prove Tarkovsky’s definition of time wrong: death doesn’t erase their memory of each other because death is just a part of a bigger journey for their conscience. Like in Lost, the human inability to “go back” is addressed in all of its agony. Once the characters in The OA die, there’s no bringing them back. But there’s a hack to send people forward, to another dimension, to another life. It’s a routine millions of people around the world have learned by watching the show and have then, interestingly, performed themselves in real life, like a ritual, when the series was cancelled by Netflix in 2019.
Again, a similarly meta message is hidden in the finale of Adventure Time, an animated series aired on Cartoon Network from 2010 to 2018. While everyone is fighting the Great Gum War and the malevolent deity GOLB, BMO — a little computer with a personality and a passion for bedtime stories — starts singing a song to comfort Jake the dog. The song is titled Time Adventure as both a wordplay on the title of the series, and a deeper reference to the fact that its whole story is an adventure of time — as Finn and Jake’s quests have lasted as long as the most epic of myths. While the series had to end, their adventures will always be there, will always be “back then,” for characters and the viewers they will keep happening, stored in tales that everyone will share, because memory is the only avenue that helps us make sense of time, and life. It’s a song of acceptance: both of the possible imminent death of the characters in the war, and the sure ending of Adventure Time.
TV series that question time and therefore investigate the function of narration are more than the new mass, that television, and any other form of contemporary entertainment, has represented in the last decades. They are the priest that looks at himself and finds a doubt, instead of an answer for his devotees. Can you believe this story? What are we, outside of this story? Outside of this time?
In our society, time is increasingly an economic commodity, a unit of value measurement, if not on par, certainly an alternative to money. In The Capital, Marx had already identified time as a unit of measurement of wage exploitation, and this reasoning gave rise to the concept of the working day organized based on a certain amount of hours rather than on a production objective. As a result, it became possible to retain workers by “blocking” their time even when they had nothing to produce. Time is, by all accounts, a grip on reality: humans have a strength that is money, and a space within which they can act on that strength that is time.
In the past the tempo of nature governed the time of work: farmers got up at dawn and went to bed at sunset. With the advent of capitalism, time disengaged from nature and the circadian cycle, becoming a cage and the unit of measurement of production. We could think that, over the decades, these patterns have weakened and become less relevant in contemporary society, but that is not the case. The idea of the assembly line that began with the birth of Ford’s system and the Stock Union has never changed. From consumer goods to services, we are still part of an assembly line: instead of tightening bolts we participate in Skype calls. Business practices such as smart working act within this same Marxist framework: it is not the space in which the employees are stuck that counts, but the time for which they are stuck in it. After all, it is something inherent in the very structure of capitalism, present in its original etymology: its root, caput, has the dual meaning of “head” and “total amount of working hours”.
Time is the first element on which capitalism has acted: to increase the pace of production it has compressed the time of the action, of the movement. By overcoming the distinction between time and duration envisaged by Bergson, time has ceased to be a matter of cognitive perception, becoming a pure material fact. However, if it is true that duration is different from time, and that these two concepts are not the same, it becomes possible to force employees to work more than eight hours, by expanding the duration of the action or, better, by dilating their perception of the action, cognitively distorting it by introducing fake comforts such as ping pong in the office or pizza among colleagues. The last great challenge of capitalism is the monetization of sleep: the only thing it has not yet managed to tackle is the fact that at some point we have to sleep.
A number of different forms of time have sprung up in contemporary society: there is work time, but also the time of the body, of the mind, and of holidays. But the capitalist system has not yet managed to dominate the time of the present, the hic et nunc, the instant. In no functioning capitalist society, be it dictatorial or democratic, can one afford to possess the present: one always works for later or always for before. And this is the great hiatus with pre-modern work, in which one acted in the present (the seed sown upon the ground by the farmer).
In such a framework, working in the “here and now” becomes a subversive act, because there is only the moment, only the immanence: in the present no planning is possible, there is no meeting we must attend. It is not by chance that the time of the trade union struggles and of fighting for rights is the time of the present, of suspension, of sit-ins, of a more human reprogramming of work. For Marx, the “here and now” represents the impossibility of generating a capital gain. In today’s society we work seven days a week without realizing it, giving data and content to the big tech corps: a perennial generation of added value that, as Marx himself predicted, does not generate any value.
But how did we get here? The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a diligent scholar of Marx, reminds us that post-capitalism, which he calls “immaterial capitalism,” no longer sells goods, but rather services and experiences where added value is generated by the monetization of time. In this perspective, car sharing, Uber, and delivery apps are all solutions to save time. These services let us buy someone else’s time so that we can do something else in the meantime. Time saved is the new production level index.
We all realize the paradox of the way we live, but we are aware that unfortunately this is also the only way we can live. So what is well-being if not the possibility of using the services that save us time? Because well-being is nothing more than being within the spirit of the time, and the spirit of our time is the absence of time. Paradoxically, the lack of time has become a status symbol to showcase, the proof of having achieved a status in society.
The great power of post-capitalism is precisely that of making us work for intangible exchange currencies as alternatives to money—such as visibility, passion, networking, which however do not generate any wealth at all. Whereas Marx’s worker had a very different currency in his pocket—money—and, of course, if he had been rich he would not have had to work hard on the assembly line. In this sense, there is no difference between capitalism and post-capitalism: the currency of exchange is different, but we are still within Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. It is such a pervasive dynamic that, although we are aware of it, we cannot get out of it: we are slaves to a dynamic that takes away time without giving us anything in return.
In principle, technology should allow us to work less, ideally giving us a future with a lot of time available. But the fact is that we work much more than ever before; in fact, we have never worked so much. And the more the tools and technology evolve, the more the working week stretches: factory workers worked the hours planned for their shift and, when they clocked out, they didn’t take their work home. Instead, our working day begins when we wake up and post content online with which social media generates profit and ends when, before we close our eyes, we answer our last email. Automation will undoubtedly eliminate some jobs, but it will not reduce work. The job of the cashier will disappear, but the cashier will continue to work by posting on Facebook, doing searches on Google, and so on. As the philosopher Maurizio Ferraris says, “what the Nazis failed to do, contemporary technology has.” More than “total mobilization,” I would speak of “total immobility”: you can’t do anything anymore, because you do everything.
The future vanishes just a few miles away from the pier. Past the port, there are no promises, no appointments, no worklists, no timetables, no projects. Everything becomes the present moment: Italian sailor Giovanni Soldini defines it as “a sequence of moments,” highlighting that this is more of an experience than an abstract concept. Sleep-wake shifts slip away through the hours: checks, tools—there’s always something that keeps you busy.
There is no elsewhere, no space for desires, and very few doubts about how to make the best use of your time: “It’s all about the present, and the pact that you made with the boat to always listen to it, and always do what needs to be done. It’s all very clear.” Giovanni Soldini is not a meditation expert—yet, he knows the difference between an hour that’s remitted from its befores and afters: he’s been sailing since he was a teenager. Born in Milan, Italy, in 1966, he has earned throughout his life a long list of records and victories for ocean races and world tours, both alone, or with a crew, and also solo raced around the world twice. His first solo race was in 1999 when he became world-renowned for his spectacular rescue of French sailor Isabelle Autissier, from her overturned yacht in the South Pacific Ocean. Soldini is often recognized and thanked for that rescue. He says: “If only they congratulated all men and women who save lives at sea.”
What’s the consistency of time when one sails for days, weeks or months, is the question Soldini answers with this “pervasive present,” an ongoing now where you “don’t have any appointments; maybe for a weather update, but that’s all. Other than that, no matter if you’re alone or with a crew, you’re in a tunnel. When at sea, I’ve always felt privileged: It’s where I want to be; time doesn’t age there, there is no space for anxiety. Anxiety kicks in only 1,000 miles away from the finish line, which is when you start feeling the competition. Other than this, it’s just you, with your strategies and ways. The only stress is surviving—but that only happens sometimes. Some other times, instead, you’re just there, happy, planning with your boat next to an albatross, or sailing at 20 knots for miles and miles, and you can let your thoughts trail off, think of life, nature, politics, your children, yourself, your boat. Nobody bothers you.”
Even at sea there are times when thinking becomes harder, and the well-oiled mechanism of “doing” as an urgent and present act jams. There is no need to recall the curse of the old mariner to evoke the anguish that a calm can cause. “A calm is hell. In case of a storm you basically just sleep below deck, since there’s not much else you can do other than wait for it to end. When there is a calm, you have to constantly look after the boat all the time, because the first one to get out of the void firmly distances himself from their opponents. If you don’t take that opportunity, you can pile up 20 miles of delay, and you won’t catch up with the group easily. During my second solo race around the world, Ichose a route that nobody else chose. I stayed farther north than the rest of the competitors. At the beginning, I gained a lot of ground. I was happy, I was ahead of everyone, I was sure I would win that leg. Then, a low-pressure area came in, causing the wind to change direction. I didn’t move for four full days; I was so distressed, I almost started banging my head against the boat’s mast. Everyone else was moving fast, and I was motionless, trying to make my boat move in any way that I could, imagining every possible maneuver, but there was nothing that I could do, I was desperate. I ended up crossing the finish line 18 hours after the winner.”
In his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1798, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge depicted the mariners’ nightmares, the dark side of the wind abandoning you: a punishment. Just like the midday madness that comes after an effort. Soldini knows both. “The biggest mistake you can make when you’re alone at sea is to exceed your energy limits. It takes nothing to lose consciousness. And when you realize you will, it’s usually too late. It’s done.” When fatigue kicks in and wins you over “you can’t sleep, for example. You sit down, know that the alarm clears in 15 minutes and keep telling to yourself: I gotta sleep, I gotta sleep, I gotta sleep. But you can’t. In long regattas, like those around the world, it happens less frequently, because you protect your psychophysical state from the very beginning, you stick to the rules and try to sleep at least four or five hours a day. It’s middle-distance races that are the most challenging. I remember a solo, eight- to nine-day transoceanic race: at day four you think you’re almost done, but you’re not in full shape—and that’s when you lose it, you lose the balance. I was on a trimaran, a boat that’s more physically and mentally demanding than a motorboat. At some point, I started seeing some friends around me. I remember shouting at one of them: “Hurry up, help me reef the sails or we’ll flip over.” And I’d get mad at him because he wouldn’t help me. Then, I realized they were not there. It’s common to hallucinate when on a boat. Your self-consciousness comes back after a while. The only way to get your strength back is to stop, but you don’t stop in a regatta. That time, on the 8th day I lost all the advantage I had gained in the previous legs. After disembarking, I was taken to a restaurant. I put my head on the table and fell asleep.”
“I think regattas are won over balance. When you win, it’s because you’ve kept the focus, both alone or with a crew. Maybe that’s also why women are such strong solo sailors. Because they’re very balanced. Some sailors are obsessed, but to me, obsession doesn’t pay off. Winning or losing is often a matter of minutes, seconds, but it’s not those minutes,” he warns, “that one has to look at.” On the Tea Route, which is 15,083 miles long, Soldini’s Maserati Multi70 trimaran set a record of 36 days, 2 hours, 37 minutes, and 12 seconds. “That’s also a matter of balance, other than a result achieved by the crew and all the technicians we’re working on the boat with. It’s an innovative hull; we’re experimenting on new solutions, we’re gradually trying to understand where to make changes that could make the boat even more stable and fast. Last summer, something big hit the left hull, damaging it. We stopped for one hour, disassembled the wing, and the following day we fixed that two-meters scar, all by ourselves. We can do it because we know the boat in detail.”
It’s part of the balance Soldini needs when he’s by the mainland too. “Some people just stay at the helm. I, instead, like to fix things, check stuff, follow developments and ideas from their inception. It lets me be more independent when I’m at sea, more capable of reacting to unexpected events.” To hear him speak, it seems like it’s a strategy that above all protects him from the assault of the mainland, from the city commitments, the rain, the evenings, the chats. It prevents sailing from becoming work and time from shifting from ‘now’ to ‘later’and quickly expiring, becoming full of regrets. “When I’m on land, I often feel like I’m wasting my time. I used to have the same feeling when I was a kid. At sea, I never have that feeling. But on land I feel it; I feel the anxiety. That stress of trying to sell a project and feeling that whoever could, or should, support it is “almost convinced” but leaves you in limbo for months; the search for money you can’t find; the organization, the components that are not working, the materials, the quarrels, the management.” There’s only one way, he says, to survive all this: “trying to sail as much as I can. I’m happy with any space I can carve out.”
He admits it’s tempting to follow the example of Bernard Moitessier, one of the most greatest French sailors, who unwinded his binds for months and gave up on competitions, “it’s not easy to do so, we’re not alone in the world,” he points out. “But I’d love to do it; I’ve never been to Polynesia, I’ll dedicate myself to travel as soon as I retire.” By the sea, of course. Soldini recalls his first time by the ocean. “I was little. I went out on the sea with a 70-year-old shipowner who calculated the route by hand, wrote the numbers in pencil and used a sextant for orientation. We were completely free to stay at the helm, and be in charge, both in day and night shifts. It was incredibly exciting. After 15 days looking at nothing else but the sea on the horizon, suddenly Antigua appeared in the distance. GPS has made many skills useless. Before, you would lose eye-contact with the mainland but you still more or less knew your location before finding it back again. You wouldn’t constantly look at the boat’s position through a screen.”
For centuries, humanity has been struggling with the need to make this mysterious abstraction concrete. That desire has been realized in countless ways, and not only visually: early clocks, for example, used bells to make regular, repeated sounds to mark time. When it comes to depicting the shape of time before our eyes, people have employed many different metaphors, but, among these, the metaphor of the line has always been crucial. We find lines everywhere in visual representations of time — in almanacs, calendars, charts, and graphs – and of course in the language that we use to talk about time, too. Timelines are such a familiar part of our mental furniture that it’s hard to imagine a concept of time that is not in at least some way linear. Even when we think of time as a wheel or a spiral, for instance, those shapes are made from lines. And yet the timeline as we know it — a straight, measured line, like a meter stick — is little more than 250 years old. What came before it is a rich and surprising landscape of imagination that no one had studied in depth until 2010, when Daniel Rosenberg from the University of Oregon, and Anthony Grafton, from Princeton University, published Cartographies of Time, the first comprehensive history of the timeline.
What’s the reason behind such abundance of representations? “Time, like space, life, love and death, is a fundamental, pervasive and omnipresent abstraction,” Rosenberg says. “When a phenomenon is so deeply important and ever-present, but immaterial, there is generally a drive to make it concrete in one way or another.” The recording of time sequences is very old. For example, carvings found by archaeologists reveal that already tens of thousands of years ago, Neolithic hunters kept records of their lunar observations. The carvings they made helped them know how long they had been chasing animals and how far they had traveled. Today, we satisfy our need to plan and record our activities with the help of calendars and clocks. All of these devices have a linear aspect to them, but their purpose is conceptually different from that of a historical timeline, Rosenberg argues: “Even as they show us moving forward through time, both calendars and clocks emphasize cyclicity. They represent the passage of time through repetition. Days, weeks, and years all repeat. And these conventions of timing are associated with habits: on Sundays perhaps we don’t work; on New Year’s Eve we make vows or light fireworks. It is for this reason that we can we make sense of a sentence such as ‘Today feels like a Monday!’ which would otherwise be a very strange idea indeed. Timelines do the opposite job: they de-emphasize cyclicity as they represent the passage of time on a larger scale. But make no mistake: even the most linear historical timeline cannot do away completely with the cycle, just as the most cyclical view of time cannot completely extinguish a sense of forward movement. In short, the senses of time evoked by the timeline on the one hand and the clock and calendar on the other are interdependent.”
In their book, Rosenberg and Grafton take the reader on a journey using graphical artifacts that were conceived in the last several centuries to portray the course of history. Some of them are so different from modern timelines that they barely seem related. In some cases, these chronologies fill entire books: in the early years of moveable-type printing, in 1474, German humanist, Hartmann Schedel, published the Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated world history beginning from the Bible where the protagonists were depicted as fruit of elaborate trees. Schedel left three blank pages at the end of his book where readers could fill in events to take place in the time between the book’s publication and the impending Apocalypse. In his 1585 Anatomia statuae Danielis, Saxon scholar Lorenz Faust drew the statue described in the Book of Daniel as representing the four great kingdoms of world history. Faust recorded registered these upon the statue by inscribing the names of the rulers of each kingdom on the statue’s body, head, and limbs. And Johannes Buno, a history teacher in Lüneburg, found a unique method to make historical events memorable to his students. He associated symbolic, allegorical images (an eagle, a set of planks, a camel, a dragon) to each of the four millennia that stretched from Creation (said to be 4004 BC) to the coming of Christ. He did the same with the 17 centuries between Christ’s birth and his own time: the second century was a bear, the fourteenth a vessel of oil, and so on. Those images formed the chronological background, while in the foreground Buno placed images of important men and women from corresponding periods, each carrying out their proper task: Seth — Adam and Eve’s son — for example, holds the two pillars of knowledge built by his descendants, while the astronomer, Ptolemy, looks at the sky. In the early modern period, chronology was often visualized and memorized through the use of vivid allegorical images such as these.
During the same period, tables of time were employed, as well, but it was only around the middle of the eighteenth century that we find the first examples of measured, linear timelines that look like the ones we are familiar with today. In these, time is projected onto a single, continuous plan that can be visually scanned like a geographic map. In these charts, proportions between space and time are rigorously observed, and pictorial allegories give way to abstract, measured lines. Time charts, in short, function like tools of scientific measurement. This shift, professor Rosenberg says, is closely linked to fundamental changes in the way we look at history. “In the seventeenth century, Europeans started to think of historical change as something driven by themselves, not by extrinsic forces,” he says. “Prior to that moment, of course, people knew that human actors could make a difference, but the larger shape of history — the millennial shape — was thought to be controlled by other forces. During early modernity, the influence of human action upon that greater shape of history became a question. This obviously does not mean that everyone suddenly thought that God was dead: on the contrary, even today, the idea that the direction of history is divinely determined is widely held. But in the modern period, other narratives came both to collaborate and to compete with the theological one. Thus, from the seventeenth century, in visual culture, it became newly important to represent the relationship of events in history to the larger shape of history itself. And not through allegories linked to a providential idea of history, but through patterns observed in historical events.”
In this respect, the modern timeline fits into a longer history of graphic representations of time, which very much includes the kinds of religious allegories represented by figures such as Schedel, Faust, and Buno, while also marking something different, something new in the history of time. Many of the innovators of the first modern timelines were very devout people, but the graphic formats they pioneered typically set millennial questions aside. Among the best examples of this tension, Rosenberg points to two charts by the late-eighteenth century English scientist and theologian, Joseph Priestley, best remembered as the discoverer of oxygen. The first of these, the Chart of Biography from 1765, shows when famous people lived and died. The second, the New Chart of History from 1769, depicts the rise and fall of empires. Both of them plot their data along a measured line. In their book, and in the new digital project, Time Online, Rosenberg and Grafton describe Priestley’s charts as among the most influential of the early modern period. “Priestley’s charts have lengthy theoretical explanations that go along with them,” says professor Rosenberg. “The charts begin in 1200 BC and end in 1800 AD, thus placing events in the frame of secular, historical time. Priestley was a millennialist: he believed in the imminence of endtimes. But, as a scientist, he decided it was not his task to represent the millennial story on his chart. That’s why his timeline starts well after the supposed beginning of the world and ends in the near future. Within this defined period, Priestley could apply a rigorous historical method without worrying about theologically controversial subjects such as the age of the earth. It allowed him to focus on other kinds of questions: how do ideas spread; how do discoveries in one field influence discoveries in another; what is the relationship between events in the history of nations and events in the history of ideas?”
The abstraction of the simple, measured line promoted by Priestley proved to be persuasive. Very quickly, his timelines were widely imitated across Europe and beyond. But their success did not mean the end of other ways of representing historical time. The old temporal metaphors of streams and trees, for example, continued to be widely used. Still today, when we represent the succession of generations, we often do so in the form of a tree. “Graphically, the tree, too, is a powerful device,” says Rosenberg, “and over the centuries it has proven itself to be a very effective mechanism to represent succession. A tree diagram shows relationships among events, things, or ideas. This distinguishes it from timelines of the sort that Priestley made which assert no causal relationships among events, only chronological order. Trees and rivers also differ from the linear timelines in that they branch; they are intrinsically plural. In one way, this makes them very appealing. The branches can help us see different paths and imagine alternatives. And yet, in another way, the linear timeline is the more conceptually open format. By representing events in parallel with one another without asserting specific relationships among them, the timeline establishes a framework in which to ask rather than to answer questions about cause and effect. In a funny way then, the linear timeline may turn out to authorize more plural thinking than the visually branching tree.”
How might this plurality manifest itself in the future? Rosenberg has an answer: “An interesting example of the kind of alternative thinking that may be fostered by the linear timeline arises in recent discussions of the Anthropocene. For an eighteenth-century thinker such as Joseph Priestley, the regular, measured timeline provided a framework for studying and contemplating human history on its own, apart from theological questions about the larger shape of time. But, if the theorists of the Anthropocene are right, Priestley’s timeline—as a framework for human history in and of itself—is already a map of a larger framework of time. And his depiction of the shape of human history as a meaningful aggregation of apparently independent events is already a map of the organized complexity that produced the Anthropocene. As a thinker of the Enlightenment, Priestley believed that the increasing prevalence of discovery, industry, and commerce in modern times – phenomena visible on his charts — reflected the self-reinforcing effects of progress. While these processes were unplanned and decentralized, Priestley believed that they were also accelerating and irreversible. Eventually, he argued, unstoppable progress would bring a better day for all humanity. On the question of progress, the claims of the theorists of the Anthropocene are just about diametrically opposed to those of Priestley, yet Priestley’s charts provide a striking visualization of the same phenomena with which they are concerned. Perhaps the theorists of the Anthropocene ought to be looking for new visualization tools to express their understanding of global history. But it is also possible that visualizations from the first great era of industrialization such as those of Joseph Priestley already do the job in a compelling way. If this were the case, it would be a poignant but not entirely surprising irony.”
Starbuck Island is a coral island in the Pacific Ocean, part of the Republic of Kiribati. It’s a wild, barren place, with little vegetation and no freshwater. It hosts a huge number of seabirds: three to six million of them: black and white sooty terns. On October 22, 1884, the sun rose over Starbuck and its birds, as it usually did. Nobody on the island knew—or cared—that a bunch of humans, 9,440 kilometers away, had just made their home the first place in the world to see the start of a new day.
Time zones are weird and endearing. They’re full of contradictions, approximations and exceptions, but manage to work surprisingly well. They’re obviously unnatural; a clear mark on the world, the scars of the moment we stopped relying on the sun to measure time, and started using something we had created ourselves—clocks.
For thousands of years, time had been local and solar: Towns would set their clocks at noon, when the sun reached its zenith. But as we started moving faster, and across greater distances, the sun grew too slow to set our pace. In the 1800s, railroads spread across the globe, moving people and goods, and civilization and industrialization, on the threads of its growing web of steel. The UK, USA, and Canada all had a bad case of the railroads. Stations would set their own clocks and schedules—the USA alone offered an incredible selection of 300 local times. As a result, nothing and nobody got anywhere on time. This mess needed to be fixed: there were cities to be built and money to be made. Not surprisingly, all who helped give birth to standardized time were involved with trains.
Charles F. Dowd was the first man to propose time zones for the United States, in 1863. The first people he told were the girls he was teaching at Temple Grove Ladies Seminary. He died under a locomotive in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1904. Quirico Filopanti (not his real name), an Italian mathematician and politician, suggested expanding time zones to the whole world in his book “Miranda!”, before failing to find funding for a train line between Rome and Civitavecchia, and then getting himself exiled for entirely unrelated reasons.
In 1878, Sir Sanford Fleming actually made time zones happen. In his memoir “Terrestrial Time,” he observed that the earth measures 360º of longitude, indicating that the planet moves 1/24th of a circle, i.e. 15º, each hour. This means that we can divide the world into 24 neat time zones, spaced 15 degrees of longitude apart. By 1884, everybody more or less agreed this was a great idea. The International Prime Meridian conference held in Washington D.C. that October, established the Greenwich Meridian as 0º and Greenwich Mean Time as GMT 0, the world’s first time standard. Time zones were born—a construct of time and geography at the service of transport—and their creation spawned singular hybrids.
In 1972 GMT stopped being a time standard and was downgraded to a regular time zone. The new time standard, Coordinated Universal Time or UTC, was calculated by means of fancy atomic clocks and included leap seconds to correct Earth’s slowing rotation. Although UTC and GMT (Greenwich Mean Time, London) represent the same time, UTC is a standard while GMT is a time zone. But nobody really noticed any change when UTC was established. By then, time zones had become as natural for people as sunrises to Starbuck Island seabirds—except maybe for the French, who waited to use UTC until August 1978.
To be fair, the French aren’t the only ones who got particular about their time zones. Iran uses GMT +4:30, North Korea’s standard time is GMT +8:30, Nepal is stuck with GMT +5:45. Sir Fleming’s ideal time zones turned out to be, well, ideal. Instead of 24 fractions, we ended up with 37. Greenland, the biggest island in the world, is in the GMT -3 time zone, four hours behind the kingdom it belongs to (talking about Denmark). Greenland’s 18th-largest city, Ittoqqortoormiit (population 425), follows GMT -1, while the American Thule Air Base, on the northwest coast, is GMT -4. The Danmarkshavn weather station (run by a staff of eight) has its clocks set to exactly GMT. As small as they are, these time zones are officially sanctioned, and they all have vaguely symbolic or barely practical reasons to justify their existence.
Some people don’t need authorities to tell them what time it is. For instance, a few settlements in a southeastern corner of Western Australia and a roadhouse just over the border in South Australia use Central Western Standard Time (GMT+8:45) (CWST). CWST, which has never received formal recognition, marks the official road signs of Eucla (population 56), Madura (18), and Mundrabilla (23).
Time zone anomalies can be as tiny as a weather station, as small as a desert village, or as big as a country. The huge territory of China should be chopped up into five time zones, but instead, it uses a single time zone. It’s the same time in Beijing as in Ürümqi, 3,200 kilometers to the west, so living in the latter gets you summer sunsets at midnight. National exams are occasionally held at night, you can get 11pm-7pm shifts, and by the way, if you cross the Afghan border, remember to set your clock back three and a half hours.
As pointed out by Matt Schiavenza in an article for The Atlantic, China’s specificity has political implications: the exclusive time zone aims to favor national unity. Still, it doesn’t sit well with everybody. China hides an ethnic split in its communal time. The Uighur population, natives of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, keep using their own time, which is two hours earlier and more in tune with the solar day. It’s a form of opposition to Beijing policies—they feel it’s a way to resist the progressive choking off of their cultural and religious autonomy. Han Chinese (the country’s predominant ethnic group) living in Xinjiang Uyghur usually stick to Beijing time. But it’s not just China: For example the Eastern-Pamir village of Langar, Tajikistan, is located in the GMT +5 time zone, but, given that the village is mainly inhabited by people of Kyrgyz extraction, they prefer to follow the Kyrgyz time (GMT +6). And the list could go on.
Time zones create social borders, both influencing and being influenced by politics. Spain’s awkward time zone placement in 1941 was part of efforts by Francisco Franco to express solidarity to Hitler. Crimea moved two hours ahead in 2014 to join Moscow and its time zone.
Time zones were created to help the world travel faster and communicate over longer distances. Back in 1884, nobody expected how quickly we would manage to do both things. Jet lag, also known as time zone change syndrome or desynchronosis, is the clearest symptom of the complicated relationship between our bodies and the speeds at which we choose to travel through time. Our circadian rhythm, a natural process which regulates our sleep-wake cycles, is deeply linked to daylight and nighttime. We need regular sleep for our health. That’s why working on one side or another of a time zone can make a huge difference. Two parallel studies, conducted in the USA and in Russia, correctly predicted that the risk of cancer would increase the farther west people lived in a time zone. Getting to wake up for work with sunshine for most of the year significantly improves the welfare of day shift workers.
Building on these studies, Osea Giuntella of the University of Pittsburgh and Fabrizio Mazzonna of Università della Svizzera suggest, in an article for the Journal of Health Economics, that time zones also influence economic welfare. Self-imposed jet lag deriving from poor sleep patterns can also severely impact individual productivity; furthermore, the health consequences are expensive: Giuntella and Mazzona estimate $2.3 billion in yearly health care costs for the western United States time zones. That means bad sleep makes these areas poorer and unhealthier.
Maulik Jagnani, an economist at Cornell University, advances a similar case against India’s single time zone. Schools start more or less at the same time all over the country, but kids living in places where the sun sets later get to class with less sleep. These kids are also less likely to complete their education. Jagnani elaborated with a mathematical correlation—an hour’s delay in annual average sunset time reduces education by 0.8 year. This time zone sleep deprivation is more prevalent among poorer households. By switching to two time zones, Mr. Jagnani suggests that India would collect annual human capital gains of over $4.2 billion. Would new issues develop west of these new time zones?
Although disregarding our personal clock to follow standard times negatively impacts our physical and financial wellbeing, society makes this seem inevitable. Nobody feels this more than long haul airline pilots and flight attendants. Airplanes pierce through time zones at impossible speeds, carrying cargo and souls, representing the means and the symbol of humanity’s inhuman velocity.
Boaz Reizel, 32 years-old
Long haul pilot in training for a major European airline
What does time feel like in the cockpit?
Time is a constant. We do everything according to time in aviation. Strict schedules and tight connections make us very aware of every minute we gain or lose. However, time as a rhythm is often completely lost. On a flight back from Japan, it can be possible to watch the sun set and rise multiple times. Your biological clock is never in sync with the world you observe. Time becomes a way to measure distance, and your body is the only real way to measure time.
Are you aware of any health risks related to your job?
Of course. About every week you miss a full night of sleep—and this changes you on a structural level. Sleeping less than 7 hours a night is slowly robbing your future self of health. Stress and fatigue pile up easily, in some cases, people end up needing pills to sleep.
Do airlines take these risks seriously?
They do, to a certain degree, and they’ve addressed them more than in the past. At the same time, it’s abundantly clear what you’re getting into when you choose this line of work. It would be like a firefighter being surprised to encounter smoke.
How do you manage?
A healthy lifestyle, a lot of sports, and intermittent fasting. The basic idea is that I only eat in a specific timeframe and let my body use up all the energy. This means I have to be very rigid with the times when I eat. I try to eat when the sun is out and my digestive system is ready. If I have to get up at 1 am, I’ll just drink some water.
What makes it worth it?
The perspective you gain on being a human on this planet.
Conventional time, which helps us understand the physical space in which we realize our daily activities, is in a constant struggle with standard(ized) time zones. Today, standard time is getting gobbled up by the Internet’s bigger fish, the non-existent, zero time of instantaneous communication. Friction between conventional time and standard time creates health problems; friction between conventional time and zero time causes social issues:
Mischievous ones. Korean students in the USA are exploiting the 14 to 17 hour time difference with their home country to cheat on their SATs. A student from Seoul called a friend in New York in the afternoon, as soon as he was done with his exams so he could feed him the questions the night before the test.
Serious ones. Companies in the developed world, especially tech and digital companies, have started rethinking employee work hours. Flexibility is at the core of a better work-life balance—giving people the chance to attune to their circadian rhythm makes them happier and healthier. Happy and healthy workers earn companies more money. This came about by massive advancements in communication technology, which have also skyrocketed outsourcing. The “network time of corporate globalization” hasn’t dissipated, it’s been transferred elsewhere.
In Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing Is Changing the Way Indians Understand Themselves, author Shehzad Nadeem points out how Indian call center workers are stuck in a temporal displacement, having to live and work in their time zone during American East Coast office hours. This causes predictable health issues, but also a growing sense of alienation from their family and friends.
Time can also be dangerous. Velocity is distance over time; when time turns to zero, the whole equation gets really messy. Velocity becomes undefined, and space (velocity × time) is also zero. But space can never be null outside of the digital world: we are still very much defined by physical boundaries, first and foremost the one represented by our body, and the way we interact with it. As our relationship with the world and its resources grows steadily more complex, we can’t allow ourselves to grow detached from physical places, their rules, and the respect that we owe them. We should be worried instead about alienation.
Vladimir Lorenzin, 64-years-old
Export area manager for Eastern Europe and Russia, Fapim
Does traveling through time zones change the way you think?
I feel like I’m always traveling through multiple aspects of time. I have my zero time on my watch, the time back home, and the local time—work time—on my phone. I’m also constantly balancing my personal time and the time I have to spend doing my job.
What are the hard parts?
The most challenging aspect of my work isn’t so much about getting on a decent sleep schedule, but constantly readjusting to different cultures as I move from place to place. So it’s not the time difference, but the difference in understanding time; people’s varying ideas of punctuality, organization, or acceptable meeting lengths change, and so must I when I’m with them. It’s interesting to explore these cultural correlations, and it’s part of what I look for in these trips—communication, even sometimes tortuous communication.
Has the advent of the internet changed the way you work?
Honestly? It changed things for the better. It has made me more organized—I could be naked with my phone in my hand, and have access to my whole office. It has also made the delivery of messages a certainty. That being said, the time it takes and the way people answer has not changed that much. Contracts are always signed face to face, after real human contact. This way of doing business has actually grown stronger.
How do you feel about personal travel?
There are two maps I’m constantly moving across, my personal one and the objective map of the world. I try to adapt the objective map to mine, using a crystallized version of myself as a catalyst for inner movement. That being said, I have yet to find a time zone as bad as working in a restaurant!
International Space Station
“In summary, we have time zones because there was once a time when people could travel about as fast as they could communicate. Time had to be standardized and agreed upon prior to travel” writes Matt Bernhard in his essayTime Zones are Dumb. Critics of time zones, such as Bernhard, usually propose a single GMT-based time as an alternative. Instantaneous communication, powered by autonomous computers, doesn’t require haywire fragmentation—one time zone is enough for the whole planet. The International Space Station uses simple GMT to get things done outside the atmosphere.
An Earth Time Standard would likely make programming and traveling easier, and perhaps help us structure our days around natural cycles of light and darkness. Its implementation would require overcoming massive culture shifts and bureaucratic hurdles, and China and India are strong reminders that huge time zones aren’t necessarily an improvement.
All things considered, time zones work pretty well. They completely erased thousands of years of anarchy, syncing up billions of people in about two centuries, while still staying open enough to be confusing and frequently inefficient. It’s a stalemate in an exciting match. If our future lies beyond our planet, any solar referenced time system will eventually become obsolete, and we’ll have to come up with a whole new playing board. Until then, we don’t need to transform time zones; we need to get better at interpreting them. Time zones are a reminder of our power and our limitations in this world— we’re free to go wherever we please, but doing so too fast will hurt us.
Considering how complicated our presence on the planet is becoming, perhaps we need to stop trying to adapt to our growing speed and readjust our velocity towards a more human stride. There is no need to quit traveling forwards and upwards. We can certainly change our pace, and time it to our inner clock—which isn’t some dumb new-age concept, but literally our natural circadian rhythm. There’s abundant evidence that this is a good thing. It all begins by reevaluating the purpose of waiting. It takes time to travel humanely to distant places as it takes time to produce things within healthy working hours.
In 1873, Jules Verne conveniently published Around the World in 80 Days. In the final plot twist, protagonist Phileas Fogg realizes he hasn’t lost the bet after all. Since he always traveled eastwards, his days were shortened by four minutes for each degree of longitude crossed— although he is experiencing the same amount of time as the Reform Club members in the novel, he has an extra sunrise to spare.
We know we can travel the world in 80 days. But there’s no rush anymore; there is nobody to prove a point to, there is no need to blow loads of money and lose track of whole days. There’s no anxiety. It takes time to do things right—measuring each step is the best way to get somewhere exactly when you’re supposed to.
Time zones are weird and endearing because they’re a reminder that efficiency isn’t the point of our existence on this planet.