I’m Afraid Time Doesn’t Exist Anymore
The past is the future is the present, or vice-versa. Either way, I don’t remember when my grandfather died.
Spanning over 50 years, the juggernaut of sci-fi that is Doctor Who explains time in the oddest of ways, yet it remains especially accurate for my generation: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey… stuff.” That last part got away from him, and it doesn’t make much sense, but this is it. We’re here.
In an instant, I’ve read 21 headlines. 13 of them filled with chaotic energy. I’ve digested information ranging from fun to depressing with no break between contradicting emotions. After a while, I feel my brain short-circuiting. I finally blink. I don’t know if I’ve been staring at my computer for a minute or an hour.
The clock ticks from one second to another because we all agreed to design time this way, and this collaboration is here to stay. But the fate of our perception of time stands on a tightrope doomed to break. Adrian Bejan, Mechanical Engineering Professor of Duke University and author of The Physics of Life, focuses on this very idea in a research paper where he explains why the days seem shorter as we get older.
“Time really just means perceived change,” Bejan says in a Skype interview, “and the human mind records these perceptions in snapshots.” Much like a camera taking rapid-fire pictures, your mind measures time by the amount of pictures it captures; the more there are, the fuller the days seem. But the number of snapshots taken in a day decreases as you get older because the pathways they use to reach your brain stretch and eventually deteriorate, altering the speed at which those snapshots travel. When you perceive fewer changes than you used to, one question arises, “where’d time go?”
Kids complain about time passing excrutiatingly slowly in class, Bejan complains about the sun setting too soon, but he tells me, a 23-year-old millenial, that I’m at the peak of my growth as a thinker, unconcerned with the slow pace of the young and the fleeting days of the old. It’s inspiring yet hard to believe. I’m concerned with both and none at the same time.
As a kid, my father would tell me it’s important to watch the daily news broadcast on TV from 8 to 8:45 p.m. “It’s important to stay up to date with what’s happening in the world,” he’d say. Looking back, it was comforting — like clockwork, I would get my daily dose of bad stuff, boring stuff, and some fun stuff at the end, only to leave the dinner table with the proverbial pat on the back, thinking, “I just did something important.” Then I’d go to bed and read Harry Potter.
Now, my father is gone, I don’t own a TV, but I get a push notification the moment a mass shooting happens.
Many social media executives have already come out and admitted that their platforms are built to foster a compulsion to stay connected. They make us interact either directly or indirectly with hundreds of people in only a few minutes, a number we once would have been uncomfortable with in a similar period of time. In this 24/7 news cycle era, these interactions are heavily peppered with live updates of and opinions about everything all at once, and you can’t look away — it’s important to stay up to date with what’s happening in the world.
According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of American adults get at least some news from social media. Interestingly enough, 68% of Americans suffer from news fatigue. Worn out by the onslaught of dreadful information, you start to empathize less. Healthcare professionals and activists, the oft-overlooked victims of burnout, know this all too well. After all, there’s only so many shoes you can put yourself in.
Bejan, the Duke University professor, sees life as a movie, and some snapshots of this movie are more prominent than others — parts of the highlight reel. “I vividly remember a death in my family, that time I broke my arm in a game, or how I fled Romania to escape from communism,” Bejan says. Not all snapshots are equally important, he adds, so your brain gives priority to the more important memories. I feel a disconnect as the conversation unfolds, because I vividly remember myself sat upright in bed in front of my computer at 5 a.m. on Nov. 24, 2014, my black hair in my fist, hoping to watch the grand jury indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, but I can’t remember the date of my grandfather’s death. At the time of that interview, I knew exactly when the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown’s death would be commemorated, but I only knew that the third anniversary of my grandfather’s death would come to pass someday next year.
Bejan writes that my generation is experiencing a time distortion because of the time we spend on social media, but as I lived vicariously through the Black Lives Matter movement, I notice now that several events in my personal life simply took a backseat. It’s not a time distortion anymore — everything is actually happening all at once, and to the detriment of our mental health, we unconsciously pick our battles.
Ageing is not the only reason why the days seem shorter, Bejan notes. The pathways that the snapshots travel to reach your brain deteriorate over time, but fatigue makes this process go faster. Like a glitch, the snapshots overlap, the eye needs more time to take them, one can reach the brain before the other when it should be the opposite. In other words, fatigue participates in early time distortion. But now, fatigue doesn’t only come from lacking sleep, workaholism, too much drinking, or a long workout session — snapshots travel pathways that are simply more solicited than they were decades ago. In an age where social media programs us to crave more information and interaction than ever before, the pathways that regulate our perception of time don’t just naturally deteriorate, they become unreliable.
This time heist is likely to impact minorities the most. According to the Pew Research Center, 26% of U.S. adults who earn less than $30,000 said they’re “smartphone only” internet users. Among them, Hispanic and Black adults are more likely to be “smartphone only”. As a lot of them can’t afford to maintain a home internet connection, they rely on a portable device that follows them everywhere to access internet anywhere at any time. The itch to stay connected never leaves.
Data from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) shows that “black women are 7.5 years biologically “older” than white women.” Oxidative stress factors like everyday racism shrink Black people’s telomeres — the ends of our chromosomes which regulate, among other biological functions, aging — thus deregulating our perception of time even more.
The status of bystander is no longer acceptable, so it’s not a coincidence that young caregivers — professional or otherwise — and activists — marching or organising or raising awareness on social media — are the most impacted by this time heist. There’s no brief 45-minute daily recap of some select events that happened in privileged parts of the world anymore. Everything happening in real-time results in daily stress levels never recorded before, even moreso when living in a marginalized body and walking with your head held high is, in and of itself, political. When you process feelings and events and your evolution through it all in such real-time and hyperconnected ways, your brain can’t differentiate between what was, what is, and what will be.
A part of me rejoices at the idea of having the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria at my fingertips, but another wonders if I’m just checking out one tidbit of knowledge after another — the way I check out a book at the library and give it back right before the borrowing deadline without having read it — not holding onto anything that really matters because I always have something else to move on to. A part of me is glad social justice is something I can contribute to, no matter how small the way, but another remembers the daily news broadcast between 8 and 8:45 p.m. and nuzzles its way into the comfortable blanket of predictability.
Not to sound old at 23 but, back in my day, time made much more sense. As I make my way through troubling times where 2019 can feel like the 1940s, where 2014 onwards feels like 1965, and where 2012 feels like 2019, it’s difficult not to yearn for the excrutiatingly slow days in my elementary school classroom where I could follow every tick of the clock. Ah, those were the days.
Now, the only thing that currently keeps afloat my chaotic relationship with time and the part I play in it is a quote from Doctor Who: “Hold tight and pretend it’s a plan.”