.::..Nicholas Sagan..::. …:.::..artworks and experiments…::.:…nicholassagan@gmail.com

How Time Became Posthuman

November 2010

“To flee the hazards of potentiality, of the future tense, is to flee the movement of life itself.”

-Eva Hoffman, Time

When we consider time in the collective sense there is a tendency to operate within 
very specific framework of time that directly relates to the human scale. That is, we
 generally wake up at specific times, spend a set amount of time pursuing professional
 developments and even regulate our eating patterns according to these schedules and
 temporal structures. This is not necessarily to suggest that these tasks or schedules are
understood as banal, even though they are the everyday, but that they are temporal
 events that came about primarily though evolutionary processes; time as we come 
to understand and live in it is based on our human biology. If we first consider Hayles definition of what marks the posthuman, as engaging with a “cybernetic
circuit that splices [one’s] will, desire, and perception into a distributed cognitive system
in which represented bodies are joined with enacted bodies through mutating and
flexible machine interfaces” (Hayles, 1999, p. 193) we can then begin to apply concepts
of a technologically augmented or altered sense of temporality.

To understand how this shift in temporal consciousness is an essential consideration
 to the idea of posthumanism we need to look back tens of thousands of years ago to
when the human species’ daily life was based more on biological impulses then, say,
 worrying about using the restroom before getting on the train. As evolution progressed
 the organization around those impulses grew more complex to the point at which we
 exist today. We as a species have moved beyond our temporally bound biological limits 
through the ongoing development of communications and information networks. 
Now that we are here and mostly exist in the modern day we have developed to a point
 where we are able to regulate ourselves according to the ‘norms’ and infrastructure of
 our societies.

As technologies advance and the speed at which sharing information decreases 
significantly, experiential time-compression on a social scale begins to emerge. This 
time-compression effect can be described as the substantial decrease in the amount
 of time it takes to transmit information from one node to another, those nodes being 
anything from a person’s speaking into a telephone microphone to the inbox of an email 
account. Looking back across the ages, letters were first carried across the country by
 horseback, a method that has a very clear biological component. Even when information
 was transmitted via railway there was still a considerable lag between ‘transmission’ at 
point A and ‘receipt’ at point B. Trains provided a way of compressing time but not to
the point of breaking our biological limits. The establishment of a rail system did help
move us in that direction by organizing a more collective sense of time; there was no consistent measure of time from town to town, let alone between railway stops across 
the country. After a short time of confusion and frustration time zones were established 
and then 12:05 pm in Tulsa meant 11:05 pm in Tucson and therefore people would not 
have to stand around waiting for a train all day. (Holford-Strevens, 2005)

Steam railways in the United States also happened to coincide, relatively speaking,
with the implementation of the telegraph and we then had another means to break
 our dependence on biological means of conveying any bit of information, even though
 there was still considerable human resources needed to construct and maintain the 
infrastructure of both. Rather than a letter taking days to reach it’s destination, which
 had the potential to be more detrimental in some instances, the same information a
letter contained could then take as much time as it takes light to travel from one person
in one city to the next (with of course taking into account minor variables of interpreting
and then reading the message). So even in the age of the telegraph and in turn the
telephone, information could be communicated at the speed of light (or electricity
rather), give or take a few thousand miles per hour. However, not much has changed in
terms of the “speed limit” of communications technologies since the 19th Century and 
because of which it is tenuous at best to mark the beginnings of posthumanism there.

Beyond the development of transportation and early communications technology, the 
Internet is arguably the tool that has helped to actually break our biological limits and
 serves as a prime example of how the technology we have created moves us beyond 
not only physical limits, but the psychological boundaries of time as well. While it could
 almost be considered a flagship of a growing posthuman culture, it is still essentially
 a component or rather symptomatic of a much larger paradigm shift in our temporal
 consciousness. People wanted information to conveyed almost as instantaneously as
it was conceived and the Internet was developed with such a purpose in mind. Since 
such communication methods now exist and have the capacity to operate at the global
 scale, the biological temporal framework of the individual is now a subject of thought
 more than matter.

Individuals whose daily lives integrate with technology are reallocating the potential of 
an individual from the biological to the psychological which allows for the existence in
 not only a compressed personal temporal framework (think of instant messaging with
 someone who could be half a world away) but allows that person to exist in multiple 
temporal-spatial frameworks. A stockbroker who works at the scale of the global
 economy not only has to be aware of changes in the US market, but also has to pay
 attention to other world markets such as those in Tokyo and London (Hoffman, 2008,
p.172). All three of these cities are located in very different time zones and as such
 operate in frameworks relatively different to one another. Day in New York is night time 
in Tokyo and London is right in between. To mentally exist in all three of these locations
 almost necessitates a dependence on communication technologies, something that
 brings us out of humanist and biological thought and scale into the posthuman.

This emerging paradigm shift in temporal consciousness is happening just as much in
how we think about time as it is in the ways we operate within the various structures
 of time. Phenomenology asks us to consider that we come into this world with a
specific mode of thought aimed towards the understanding of the world that we have come to. That is, our patterns of thought are designed to fit this world we collectively
 exist in and vice versa. This means that whatever evolutionary processes effect and
guide our biology has also influenced our psychology of time. However, Merleau-
Ponty in particular argues that we construct our own perceptions of time not through
thought alone, but through ‘motility and action’ (Hoffman, 2008, p.66). Even though 
evolutionary processes somewhat dictate our decisions concerning how we manage
time, we can ultimately choose to work against our own biology’s temporal boundaries.
 It is ultimately in our nature to continue to explore and push the boundaries of our
 experiences, and pushing our temporal biology is no different. Even the physical and
 psychological ideas of death, a temporally based inevitability for all living things, is
 being fought against with the armaments of technology. (Broderick, 2009, p.56-8)

If every decision we act upon, especially ones involving or utilizing technology, secures
 an instant or moment in our personal temporal framework and by extension those who 
are affected by such events, then technology surely plays an integral role in how we
 construct our own time frames. The more we incorporate technology into our daily lives
the more our decisions and actions have to deal with technology and as our biological
 limits are not only pushed but also surpassed, we push our modes of thought into more 
virtual spaces and constructs. Whether or not I choose to send an email at 11 a.m. or
1 p.m. is not a decision that needs any sort of biological consideration, unless there 
is some dire medical emergency that keeps me occupied for 2 hours. That temporal
 potential is rooted in my actions, or choice of which time to send the email and the
results of my decision exist in a virtual state (somewhere in the vastness of the internet). 
Whether or not the recipient of that email chooses to read it at 11:05 a.m. or 1:05 p.m. or
leave it ‘in limbo’ for days is not really the issue. It is a matter of the temporal framework
in which my decisions and actions exist, both physical and virtual.

Let us reconsider the example of the horse-carriage letter carrier. This time there are other elements beyond biological considerations. As previously stated, there is essentially
 a form of time-compression when one speeds up travel between the origin and end
points of a messages path and we know from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity 
of this thing called Space-Time, a single continuum where the three dimensions of 
space and a fourth, in this case time, exist together and whose forces effect each. So
 now consider the act of looking at any two-dimensional map. There is almost always 
a measurable distance between point A and point B (send and receive points of a
message) meaning that there is always some length of time involved in the physical
 transiting between the physical places those cartographic points represent. However, 
when you are looking at the map (consider this act the virtual map) the ‘message’ can 
exist at both points simultaneously. Of course, this example is just a ‘virtual’ construct
 so simultaneity can function however we design it to. In reality simultaneity is merely
 an illusion; something cannot not exist in two places at one time.

Perhaps the illusion of simultaneity is all we really need to move past our physical and
 temporal limitations of thought. Emergent technologies, especially those that virtually
 connect to one another happened to be really good at this time-compression mentioned
 earlier. There are essentially two things that happen the more the time between two 
events is compressed; distance between points A and B is decreased due to the speed
at which the message between the two travels. So the faster, more modern communications systems become, the more they compress time (and therefore distance) but what is 
really happening is a slowing of time. The more time slows between two events, the
closely they will appear to unfold almost to the point of simultaneity (Radiolab, 2007).

Time-compression as a daily practice through the means of technology does raise
 some interesting questions about what the ultimate goals of this integration should 
be. Is the goal to pack more and more amounts of ‘data’ into our ever-elongating 
lifespans, essentially creating a quantity over quality argument? Does technology in the
 posthuman sense really serve to limit biological entropy or add to it? Consider the first 
question: what are the qualities of living that are improved by this ‘real-time, real-life 
data compression’?

It seems that if we are falling into patterns of behavior that do this,
we must be even more conscious of how our decisions effect not only our immediate
 selves, but how they effect events in the future. In this way the posthuman struggle 
of biology versus technology is a question of understanding the idea of deep time,
 something that exists quite beyond the human scale. While technology we encounter
 daily does not necessarily give us a sense of deep time, the scientific instruments we
 have created do, such as the Hubble Telescope and the Chandra Array, both of which
 image objects and events that existed millions of years ago relative to our experience 
of them. While there are some groups of people, such as the Clock of the Long Now
 Foundation, who work towards a more public awareness of deep time, by and large
 daily technology is the thing that temporally locates individuals (Brand, S., 1999).

In some ways the more we digitize our lives and the more we come to rely on technology 
as a means of communication and engagement with the world the more we rebel 
against our natural biological state. However, every rebellion comes about because of 
the tension between the status quo (biology) and the minority (technology). Whether 
or not the posthuman rebellion against our own biology will ever resolve is not the 
issue; this stuggle is more a question of pushing the understanding of what it means to 
be human at the same time we push technological boundaries. As long as we remain as
mortals, or even if we approach a ‘near-immortality’ through technology and medicine,
 there will still be that ultimate biological limit. To echo Daniël Ploeger’s words from
earlier in this catalog, “we will always be becoming posthuman” and our concept of time
 will evolve in step with that ongoing process (Ploeger, 2010, p.13).

References

Brand, S. (1999). The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Broderick, D. (Ed.). (2008). Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge. New York, New York: Atlas & Co.

Hayles, N. K. (1999). How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics.  Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.

Holford-Strevens, L. (2005). The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hoffman, E. (2009). Time.  New York, New York: Picador Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. New York, New York: Routledge Classics.

Ploeger, D. (2010). ­­Being-Human as Evolving Memory: art and posthumanism in the present tense.  Chicago, IL: PH//FT Press.

Radiolab. (2007). Beyond Time. Radiolab, WNYC. [Podcast].

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2 Responses to How Time Became Posthuman

  1. Dill says:

    You highlight some of the sinacfiignt issues that posthumanism raises for education here Kevin, and some really well chosen video clips. First we must agree on what the definition of a post-human should be’. I like part of what you imply in this point, but not sure that we need to *agree*. For me, agreement seems to imply that the posthuman should be pinned down, quantified, rendered ostensible, made generalisable, and I’m not sure that kind of tactic embraces the mutability and flexibility of the theory. Where assumptions about the rational and bounded human being are put into question, the posthuman seems to become an act of definition, but definition in the sense of a contextual and temporal specification. Posthumanism often embraces the idea that the human is performed, in a particular place and in a particular time, rather than being comprised of pre-existing stable foundations. What I mean here is that we might be able to define the posthuman in practice, but not in principle. *Agreeing* on a universal definition for posthumanism would seems to create the very foundational assumptions that the theory attempts to destabalise in humanism. If we consider the (post)human to be something that is persistently created through action and performance, it can have no foundation. Furthermore, the act of definition becomes a constant, integral process. The posthuman *is* the definition. We might say that the posthuman is unknowable’ in principle, but knowlable’ in practice.In this sense, I think your post highlights some fascinating ways in which the human (and hence the nature of knowledge) is culturally defined. It is interesting how knowledge is portrayed as quite alien and dangerous in these clips. In The Matrix, the knowledge associated with flying the helicopter is not only disembodied but transmitted from another world’. The other clips seem to reveal a fear of knowledge, is if it is something that can invade the mind’. Knowledge is viewed with great potential, but also as a sinacfiignt danger, a view which appears to situate knowledge’ as a kind of separate substance, upon which the superior rational’ and moralistic’ faculties of the mind can act. Dualisms abound

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