by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ January 3, 2020
Time has been condensing and turning back on itself since the end of the 20th century. Where we once lived in distinct periods, called decades for the last century or so, we now live in self disrupting concurrent streams.
There is no end and, most disturbing, no beginning. I suspect this is the nature of time from now on as it was articulated in the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics in 1920 and illustrated by Schrödinger’s Cat in 1935. Approaching one hundred years later those thought models are redefining our universe in diverse and surprising ways.
For the declining part of the population who were born in the mid 20th century we still define ourselves by critical decade rather the Fifties, the Sixties, the Eighties, or Nineties. The Seventies faded and never quit found a defining theme beyond Disco and Watergate.
This was very linear and some of us have a second hand fondness for the forties or, even, thirties based on film ‘musicals’ or big band and swing. That is mostly because our parents listened to music from then and it was all we had, courtesy of Lawrence Welk, until the late Fifties.
All of this seems to have come to an end sometime in the 1990s as explained by Amanda Mull in The Atlantic. If not in the 1990s then definitely in 2001. While we still talk of decades, having just started the third decade of the 21st century, the whole thing is now a mashup of the last twenty years with a few landmarks and a growing number of low marks.
One of the most common uses of decades has been to define popular music even though the ‘decade’ was rarely an actual ten year period. The fifties are distinct but actually extended to about 1963 or 1965 depending on the Beatles or the real break of the Counterculture. This concept survives in the 21st century as play lists on streaming services but doesn’t really work.
The problem is remastering. Derivative popular music has always been an identifier but that works more for whole genres of Country and Western, Rock n Roll, Blues, etc. Now it is very difficult to distinguish between current imitations of twenty or thirty year old music and remastering as an evolution of sampling and other digital techniques. The point is the loss of time both backward and forward.
Consider television. Having spent my entire life concurrent with the rise of TV in America and twenty-five years working in the evolution of Cable TV, HBO, and Pay Per View, all I can say is that it is very different now. The size of the display was not the end point that we always thought it would be. Other than sporting events or award ceremonies or important elections the whole thing is now concurrent streams on demand and totally personal or shared via texting.
The structuring of family time in the evening was once from dinner to the six o’clock news and ended with the ten o’clock news or the Late Show. Kids, dependent on their age, went to bed after I Love Lucy (or equivalent) or stay got up to the late news as ploy for later viewing. That defined the family week with later afternoon TV devoted to WWII propaganda movies or 1940’s family life.
In the larger context we have moved beyond periodization and, I think, have yet to find other ways to condense and summarize our lives. As Amanda Mull notes in her article, the politics of America has been locked into the same decade since 2001. This was tied to the rise of Reality TV that was tied, somehow, to 9/11 and has, now, given us Donald Trump.
As I mentioned above I would take this a step farther as the past is being slowly eaten by quantum mechanical entanglement. We now have a constant stream of very old photographs dating back to the US civil war that have been digitized and ‘colorized’. This was done originally to old black and white movies but Artificial Intelligence has made restoration (we don’t have a good way to even say this) to something that never existed.
There is something deeply transformative, while essentially superficial, in looking at improved definition, color updates of one hundred and twenty year old photos. Time is now a choice and not an irrevocable, organizing force.
Could this be the beginning of the long now? We have a generation coming of age born in the 21st century who have never known the world of defined decades except in listening to their parents and grandparents. Everything that has ever happened is or is becoming available now as if it happened last week. Things have either stayed the same or become less true and less real for their entire lives but they have adapted.
These are my grandchildren and they are amazingly comfortable in dealing with people of all ages. They are neigher intimidated or overly awed by people of any age. I wonder if the generational divide that is such a characteristic of the 20th century generations has also reached its end. We’re down to Gen Z and there aren’t any more letters.
We no longer recognize progress but only change. As our youngest generations have struggled to adapt and explain, they expect to have less, not more. Having grown up in the 1950s with educational movies of vast factories and giant smokestacks proudly belching soot and carbon into the atmosphere, it is no wonder that progress is now a word to be avoided as it divides those unable or unwilling to leave the past from the rest of us stuck with little future.
If there is a future it will be harder and more precarious with the climate crisis and increasing disasters a given that we are, apparently, unable and even uninterested in correcting. That the Gen Z cry of outrage is only, ‘Ok, Boomer’ is indicative although the unstated cynicism is considerably harsher than older shout of ‘fuck you, Redneck’.
To use an old expression, the long now is looking like a long downer. But this is what it is and may be what we need to break free of the endlessly recursive loops of our materialist and spiritually bankrupt civilization. We are all in this together despite what ‘decade’ we claim as home. These are all part of the things we need to get beyond to build a viable life on this planet or any other.