Thinking About Time

I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of Relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.

-Albert Einstein

My friend Jonathan recently sent me a blog post from sci fi writer/mathematician Rudy Rucker’s blog of his memories of Kurt Gödel, compiled from several talks they shared in the 70s.  I think it’s interesting that Rucker published this piece within only a week of me publishing my thoughts about my interactions with RL “Bob” Morgan.  This isn’t by way of comparison of Gödel and RL “Bob” (although “Bob” did win the California state math championship in high school.)  Nor is it intended to compare my writing with Rucker’s.  It’s just an interesting coincidence.  If you read Rucker’s writing about Gödel, you may even come to the conclusion that it’s an inevitable outcome given the givens.

One thing that struck me about Rucker’s piece is his description of Gödel’s thinking about time- specifically, the idea that time is just one factor in spacetime, and that our perception of time is an artificial perception of an epiphenomenon of higher-dimensional reality.  When you combine this with Gödel’s unique way of thinking about thinking, putting himself in a position to think about very complex problems without the constraints of ordinary reality (cf: his idea that the human mind is capable of understanding the set of all real numbers even though Cantor’s Continuum Problem states that we aren’t capable of knowing the answer) I think you can begin to use the idea to think about time in some really interesting ways.

A black swatch watch on a wrist with pink time markings

One aspect of time that is quite odd is déjà vu – the feeling that something that is happening to you or a place you are visiting for the first time has happened to you before, or that you’ve been there before, even though this doesn’t seem possible.  I can remember having regular, powerful feelings of déjà vu as a child.  In one instance, we travelled to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.  There were several places there which I was sure I had visited before – they induced very powerful, almost exhilarating feelings of recognition in me.  Many people who I’ve talked to about these types of feelings report that they had much more frequent feelings of déjà vu as children.  I have not had any of these feelings since I was roughly eight years old.

I think that the Einstein quote at the top of this piece says something about the way we think as children that can be applied to Gödel’s thoughts about our artificial perception of “time.”  Perhaps, when we experience déjà vu as children, we are somehow accessing the  “unflattened” hyperdimensional reality of spacetime.  What is it that makes us lose this ability as adults?  Does everyone lose this ability?  When you start to explore some of the aboriginal cultures of the world, it seems that not all cultures lose this ability.  What is it about western civilization that causes us to fall out of touch with spacetime?

Self Interest Doesn’t Scale

I’ve been thinking about the commonalities of a lot of patterns I’m seeing in the world lately:

  1. The “Arab Spring” and its coordination via social media
  2. The “Great Firewall of China”, China’s (failing) attempt to keep things like Twitter at bay
  3. Iran wants to create its own Internet (a contradiction in terms) to prevent stuff like Stuxnet and (more importantly) social media-based revolts from happening there
  4. Artificial borders and internecine conflicts everywhere are becoming permeable on all levels: from nation-state policy to transnational corporate hegemony all the way down to city council meetings and managerial turf wars.
  5. How long can places like the NSA keep employees from bringing cell phones into the work place?  How about when the “cell phones” are built in to our heads and we can’t really function without them?  Are we heading toward a world where there’s going to be a policy filter at the door of the NSA that shuts off or limits the capabilities of neural prostheses?
  6. The kids don’t care about privacy or policy – they use whatever works to communicate and share, the tools are getting better every day, and the tools and the kids don’t care about any of the above limits.  They definitely don’t care about your BYOD policy.

Let me say that I’m not an anarchist. I’m not even a libertarian. You could call me a social liberal and economic conservative, with some libertarian tendencies thrown in on stuff that’s about personal freedom, not infrastructure and the commons.

So what’s the unifying factor among all the items in my list?

I think it’s self interest and control. More accurately, it’s that the structures, frameworks and artifices of control, working on behalf of selfish individuals (everyone is selfish), are starting to crumble under the weight of the network effect inherent in social media. We are becoming less about the individual and more about the set of all humans.  This is just one more step in the long history of technology overcoming evolutionary forces.

Everyone sees and deplores the recent killings in Syria, and the governments of the world have no choice but to condemn them. The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case probably never would have gone to trial if it weren’t for social media-reinforced pressure.

So what happens? Of course it looks like the control structures and the individuals they serve are pushing back. I think they are going to fail as humanity becomes increasingly interconnected.  Let’s face it: if evolution can’t win, how is power going to?

What does the singularity look like? Maybe it’s a bunch of angry kids flashmobbing a tyranny they can’t take any more. What’s the path of least resistance? Tear down the walls faster.