One second at a time

13 Jan


You know the score.

Time is just another dimension, pretty much like the three spatial directions we know all about. Einstein said as much, didn’t he? – and he was right about most things.

Except that it’s not *quite* like any of the others, of course. Thousands of years of contemplation, first by philosophers, later by scientists, have failed to explain exactly what time actually is or why it seems to us humans to flow inexorably and steadily in one direction. This may all be an illusion. Some physicists have suggested that there is no arrow of time, and that all that exists is a frozen array of “nows” through which we merely perceive ourselves as moving. The future is fixed, deterministic, our sense of motion no more than a mass hallucination.

Be that as it may, all we have to work with when it comes to the human sphere is the evidence of our senses: and our consensus reality is that the future rushes upon us inevitably, at the constant, unvarying rate of one second per second. Things may be different for those entities that can move very quickly, or in spooky quantum ways – photons, antimatter, neutrinos, and the rest.

But we can’t. For human purposes, every person alive moves forward “through” time at a pace that we can’t so much as vary, much less halt or reverse: one second per second.

But we aren’t merely moving into the future.

We’re building it.

We have the power to travel through time in a way that’s not available to any of those spooky quantum particles: in our minds. We seem to perceive time in different ways at different, er, times. Sometimes it seems to crawl, sometimes to fly; but when you look, the clock’s kept ticking off the seconds just the same. And we can cast our minds forwards (or back): to lunch, to next week, to our next birthday, to retirement, to a hundred, thousand, million, billion or trillion years hence.

By anticipating the future, we create it. Our imaginings inspire our choices; our choices determine our destinies. For most of us, most of the time, the future is fluid and mutable. Tomorrow’s realities bud from today’s actions. Every one of us is making the future, one second at a time.

And now we’re beginning to engineer it. We already build structures in space. So why don’t we build them in time, too? Well, we already do. We just don’t think of them as structures. We call them blueprints. Strategies. Plans. Forecasting, futurology, scenario analysis – call it what you will, the aim is the same: to chart a course through the formless, rushing flow of the future.

Datacasting, design fiction, theoretical architecture: all of these are ways to make our expectations of the future more concrete than ever before. Some of the world’s largest companies are now building anticipation engines that will fit in your pocket; phones that will capture your intentions for you before you even know them yourself, and set out a course accordingly – courses that will let us each of us follow a tighter, more refined arc through our individual futures.

To some, this will sound nightmarish. Will our individual futures intersect and mesh in the ways that we today call “serendipity”? Do you trust your phone to stage-manage your life? Is the outcome more likely to be self-absorption and isolation than autonomy and liberation? Perhaps we will end up locked inside a prison of “nows” that we have erected ourselves, out of information and technology, rather than one the ineffable one imposed on us by the laws of physics.

We at New Scientist would like to play our part in getting the balance right. That’s why we devised Arc, a new magazine that combines a number of the ways we think about the future, from the very best of science fiction to new thinking about ways of constructing tomorrow. We hope that will help stimulate theory, conversation and debate about the future we’re all building together.

But our expectations are modest. Because as we all know from bitter experience, even the best laid plans can be thrown into disarray by quirks of fate and accidents of happenstance. Our understanding of how to navigate the eddies and rapids of time is embryonic. We remain almost powerless to control our destinies. Because we’re still only just learning how to fashion time. Because we can’t see tomorrow over the seething noise of today. Because it’s our lives against the indifferent cosmos.

Because the future always wins.

Sumit Paul-Choudhury is editor of New Scientist and editor-in-chief of Arc. New Scientist has been published since 1956. The first issue of Arc will be out on iPad, Kindle and limited print edition in February 2012.

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