Among the many profound observations Lance Strate made in “On the Binding Biases of Time,” his discussion of our present-centeredness has kept me pacing back and forth the longest. What follows is an attempt to collect in one place the artifacts collected on the trek so far.
Part I: The Present-Centered Mind
Strate calls us “present-centered” – immersed in the momentary presence of news headlines, Facebook posts, emails, Tweets, etc. He believes that, unlike pre-digital era cultures, we have lost the guidance and constraint of narrative, the linear and textual accounts of our history that give us a sense of place in the flow of historical time, that bestow meaning and significance on our personal present (and presence) in a social and cultural context. Instead, said Strate, we have the digital database, a hodge-podge of discrete files and images, “lacking in coherent order, context, or explanations, let alone detailed chronology.” History itself – anyone’s history, mine, yours, our culture’s – becomes “a matter of personal opinion. We can individually construct the past as we see fit, just as we can construct our own personal newsfeeds and readers and newspapers on the Web….”
The “present” Strate refers to is both our current moment in history and the immediate moment of now. There are differences between those two, and Strate’s concern is primarily with the historical present: whether and how our exposure to digital media has changed the way we apprehend our place in human, cultural time. Of course, we come to know that cultural present by building it from our myriad, immediate present experiences, and that is where digital and virtual communication has most significantly changed “us.”
I am always physically situated elsewhere from the locus of my attention, and that locus is ever changing. I am a passenger in a high-speed train, staring out not one but dozens of windows at what passes by, able perhaps to control which window I next will gaze through but not what I will see there, perhaps not even how long I will be able to watch the blurred images in its vista. I am never at rest, never situated; the world outside my senses, the world I use to define and describe and instantiate who I am, is simply an endless stream of seen-ery.
Perhaps our felt-sense of self remains unaltered by the virtual worlds we inhabit, but as social entities created in communication with other entities, “we” have changed radically now that we also have a presence and a present in multiple virtual worlds. For many of us, the records of our “past” exist only in online archives – the Facebook posts, the blog, the email folder, our score and possessions in the game. On the other hand, my virtual presences appear to give me unprecedented freedom and power. With a laptop or smartphone I can surf anywhere and for anything, create as many virtual personalities as I wish, and shift between worlds and selves with a tap of my finger.
But the means by which I access my worlds and selves and your worlds and selves is interrupt-driven, multi-streamed, hyperlinked and always virtual. This prevents me or at least impedes me from understanding it, from participating in it.
In the onslaught of digitally delivered novelty, I lose intimacy with the passage of time. I don’t feel it pass over my fingers as I reach out and try in vain to hold it back, it just scrolls down the page as new messages arrive. Nor can I savor the present, for novelty urges me forward to something else, something new. Better or worse, it does not matter: when all is expectation rather than participation, nothing can be momentous because all is momentary. Nothing need endure when there’s always something new to replace it; nothing can endure because I cannot pass beyond the window, I cannot stop the scroll.
I Like but do not love, I am linked in but not conjoined, pinterested but not committed. I visit and view and chat, but I cannot embrace.
Assuming that the human need for communion has not changed, this becomes a vicious cycle. The new text, the new post or Tweet, is at once a reassurance of the future, and its depletion. It promises novelty or opportunity or reward, but it merely records someone else’s lost moment. Its arrival makes us real because we are there to receive it, because it tells us someone is out there who wishes to say something to us. Yet what we receive seldom nurtures us or nourishes us or makes us somehow different than we were the moment we checked our phone. The promise is broken.
I am orphaned in, and orphaned by, the very moment in which I seek to be immersed, left with the constantly refreshed but never refreshing now.