Issue #46: Temporality and Belonging

"Time has never been experienced one way, but rather differently by different people, in relation to their power, status, and mental and physical health and safety."

We find ourselves in the eleventh month of our pandemic discontent. We’ve created vocabulary to describe our historic present: Coronatime, BC (Before Corona), Blursday. We feel varying degrees of being unmoored and lost in the absence of temporal landmarks or clarity of direction. Everyday is Groundhog Day as we float through a haze of Zoom calls and trippy Corona dreams.

We quantify and measure time. We worry about wasting time, pointing to the objectivity of work day hours. It’s the subjectivity of time, or more properly this quality of subjectivity known as temporality that makes us experience time as slippery and ephemeral. No one would blame you if the New Year felt light years ago or if you forgot what you did yesterday.

We live in an era of widespread scarcity not just of material resources but our command of reality and sense of security. Often studied in economics, people living in poverty adopt a scarcity mindset in response to their economic conditions, prioritizing tasks and decisions to minimize risk rather than maximizing upside. Scarcity mindsets are not limited to physical resources. If you’re lonely, you may develop a scarcity mindset in response to a lack of social connection. And if you’re deprived of the stability, predictability, and autonomy of choosing how to mark and use your time, well you my friend might have a scarcity mindset.

Aside from the crazy making frustration that this temporal scarcity mindset incites, much like economic scarcity, temporal scarcity causes us to mortgage our future to cope with our present. We prioritize the certainty of the here and now in response to the real fear, stress, and anxiety we feel, leaving dreams of a possible future unrealized. With our world suffering from varying degrees of temporal scarcity, we risk losing the ability to imagine worlds and visions beyond our trying present. An inherent requirement of temporality is that we do not all have the same experience of time at any given moment. This heterogeneity explored in A Question of Time provides a window of opportunity for us to explore how we can use temporality to our advantage to prioritize and elevate visions of the future from people who have been blocked from contributing.

By examining three qualities of temporality — time span and duration, pace and rhythm, and shape and sequence, we can explore how we can design experiences and narratives that reshape temporality to cultivate belonging.

Time span and duration

Temporal bandwidth, or awareness of the connections of our present to our past and future, can be thought of as the width or span of time we experience. If you’re a corporate executive only focused on the next quarter, you’re likely to feel disconnected from the co-worker that will be working on the same P&L a decade later who may have to cope with a foreseeable failure. In contrast, if you’re one of the few surviving members of a particular indigenous tribe in the Amazon, you’re likely to consider the centuries of heritage of your people and want to provide the same care for the environment that your ancestors practiced to create a legacy for your descendants.

Our temporal bandwidth has changed dramatically over the centuries. Although we are now in an epidemic of short-termism, it is precisely that mutability that shows we have the ability to affect our psychological experience of the future and our connection to the future. Richard Fisher, uncovered a set of temporal stresses, during a fellowship at MIT that characterize the factors that shape our awareness of the future in our daily decisions:

S – Salience: Dramatic, emotionally vivid events tend to be more salient than slowly evolving crises like climate volatility or pandemics.

H – Habits: Embedded habits like doomscrolling or prioritizing risk mitigation reinforce the idea that the future is terrible and terrifying

O – Overload: The dramatic acceleration of technology development and adoption overwhelms our senses and sensibilities, overwhelming our attention.

R – Responsibility: We tend to either shirk responsibility or be unaware of our role in the impacts of our actions due to the complexity of our organizations and society.

T – Targets: Our metrics often prioritize short-term wins over long-term value and benefits.

With so much uncertainty about our futures comes yearning for the past. We long for the “good old days,” overlaying the rosy filter of nostalgia over memories and reinterpreting how much good there might have been in those days. We can see our headlong plunge into nostalgia as we turn to childhood activities like puzzles and arts and crafts from summer camps. Fashion trends unabashedly embrace tie dye and all our media streaming services seem to announce TV reunions and film reboots almost every month.

These are all signs that we are looking for safety and comfort by retreating to a time when the world seemed less volatile and antagonistic. Belonging was easy when the world seemed smaller and moved slower. We existed in the same media environment and made friends with whoever was around. It’s no surprise that we see dueling calls to reopen and return to normal alongside calls to build back better. Preserving the status quo preserves the overly rosy narratives of nostalgia, feeding the desire for safety even while sacrificing the emotional connection and sense making we had already lost under the status quo.

Nostalgia and historic preservation can also be catalysts for bridging our past directly with our future. USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony uses a variety of emerging media technologies including advanced filming techniques, specialized display technologies and next generation natural language processing to create interactive biographies of Holocaust and other genocide survivors. Visitors to the installation can ask questions and receive real-time responses allowing dialogs about the future with the past.

Efforts like Dimensions in Testimony show that we can create belonging by design in the future by expanding the timescale of the metrics that we adopt, evoke striking emotional responses to potential futures, and embed incentives and aids that increase visibility and accountability for the long-term impacts of decisions and actions.

Pace and rhythm

Heart arrhythmias include conditions where the heartbeat is too fast, too slow or too irregular. The body’s clock, the circadian rhythm can be disrupted by changing time zones, exposure to sunlight, increases in stress or even loneliness. Nature’s rhythms grow more cacophonous and out of sync, surfacing ever more extreme weather events.

Similarly we experience arrhythmias in our experiences of time. As our experience of time shifts from the rapid fire experiences of an over-connected and over-stimulated world to one characterized by slow routines punctuated by increasing unpredictability, we search for new rhythms to adopt. Heart arrhythmias are often treated with pacemakers to induce a normal heartbeat. What are the pacemakers of the soul? How can we induce regular experiences of meaning and normalize transcendence?

One place to start: building a spiritual practice. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg reiterated her call for everyone to have a spiritual practice, even if you are completely secular.

As religious affiliation continues to decline, we may see more secular spirituality in response to the need for this rhythm of experiencing interconnectedness and finding meaning amid increasing chaos and burnout.

Shape and sequence

Western canon describes time with linear frameworks. Time always marches forward with measured paces along a line. In temporality, many shapes and sequences of time emerge like circular or recursive. One of Mark Twain’s many famous quotes: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." These memetic properties make sequences of historical fiction such as alternative histories and counterfactuals worthy objects for study and examination. Websites like allow people to publish fan fiction that contemplates a world without Star Trek. Reddit threads like /r/ImaginaryElections ponder an America that forced Andrew Johnson out of the presidency, preserving the roots of Reconstruction.

Anthropologist and futurist Genevieve Bell explored how our history of artificial intelligence and cybernetics could contribute to different futures if we are willing and able to learn from our history and think and act constructively to act on the systems and culture our technologies stem from to develop a world of belonging.

It might be less important to have a compelling and coherent vision of the future than an active and considered approach to building possible futures. It is as much about critical doing as critical thinking. … Systems that are built to ensure the continuities of culture feel like the kind of systems that we might want to be investing in now. This feels like the outline of a story of the future we would want to tell.

Silicon Valley, where I’ve spent a significant part of my career so far, is a place where the stories of past futures and their technologies are made and remade, and where many pieces of those pasts are erased or rewritten or just forgotten; where stories of the future are told all the time.

Now, we need to make a different kind of story about the future. One that focuses not just on the technologies, but on the systems in which these technologies will reside. The opportunity to focus on a future that holds those systems – and also on a way of approaching them in the present – feels both immense and acute. And the ways we might need to disrupt the present feel especially important in this moment of liminality, disorientation and profound unease, socially and ecologically. — Touching the future: Stories of systems, serendipity and grace, Genevieve Bell

This critical doing will require a collective rejection of linear incrementalism. Rather than relying on the archetype of a hero’s journey, we need narratives of collective journeys and transformation, honoring rebirth and return.

Toni Morrison discussed the concept of rememory when recalling her experience writing Beloved. As much of American history was written by the people who enslaved her ancestors, Morrison rejected the duality presented to her of either forgetting racialized history or remembering and becoming entangled in that history when imagining her fictional worlds. Instead, she wrote of a third path:

I could strike out for new territory: to find a way to free my imagination of the impositions and limitations of race and explore the consequences of its centrality in the world and in the lives of the people I was hungry to write about….Rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past. And it was the struggle, the pitched battle between remembering and forgetting, that became the device of the narrative.

By undoing, unraveling, and reconstituting narratives and histories, we can defy the rigid boundaries of linear time as well as the rigid categorization and violence of systems of oppression to imagine worlds of greater belonging.