Sifting through the temporal tangle

There's an episode of Doctor Who in which the eponymous time-traveling Doctor finds himself in an alternate timeline, where it's always 2:02pm on the 22nd of April, 2011. Other things are amiss too: pterodactyls are chasing children through the park, the War of the Roses has just entered its second year, and on TV, Charles Dickens is explaining the plot of his upcoming Christmas special: "All I can say now is it involves ghosts and the past and the present and the future all at the same time." Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill, evidently feeling disquieted, summons the Doctor.

"Something has happened to time," he says. "That's what you say, what you never stop saying. All of history is happening at once. But what does that mean? What happened? Explain to me in terms that I can understand: what happened to time?"


In the 21st century that you and I live in, pterodactyls are extinct, the Wars of the Roses happened in the 1400s, and Charles Dickens never got the chance to appear on television. But Emperor Churchill's question feels no less relevant: what happened to time? Or, rather, what's happening to time? And, since ideas about time and place are so integrally linked, what's happening to time and place - time in places, places in time?

It's not necessarily that time and place have changed their (slippery, shadowy) shape. It's that our view of them is shifting - or, more specifically, our tools for viewing them are shifting. Take Facebook, which, as Nathan Jurgenson writes, "fixates the present as always a future past." Or take the Fitbit, a device that tracks every step you take, feeding back data on how far you've walked, how many calories you've burned. It's just a fitness tool - ostensibly an intensely personal thing, a thing about you and your relationship to your body, your bodily relationship to the world. But, as Malcolm McCullough writes, "[p]lace begins with embodiment. Body is a place, and it shapes our perceptions" - and the Fitbit is part of a larger context, too, a proliferation and assimilation of devices and applications which fix us always in time and space, which force questions about what it means to be able to freeze time, excavate the layers of a place, make memories as they're happening.

Craig Mod writes about this in a piece on "the Data Mind":

Walking is different than biking or driving down a street. Heads stuck in smartphones, we miss the humanity of the scenes we pass. Yet using that same technology we can call up with atomic granularity the time and place of a meeting with a dear friend years back. Sometimes those two spaces collide - technology creating an almost psychic, projected awareness of the here and now.

The language we use to describe the uses and implications of this kind of technology is heavily couched in temporal and geographical language. The here is affected by the now, as the now is affected by the here. And place, as the cultural geographer Doreen Massey writes, is "here and now. It won't be the same 'here' when it is no longer 'now'." It's crowded by ghosts and memories, complicated by what James Donald describes as a "simultaneity of past, present, and future", a "temporal tangle that defines the 'now' that we inhabit."

So what exactly is technology creating an awareness of if "the here and now" is so slippery? What's here? What's now?


It's a good time to be thinking about this, maybe, given all the recent interest in the app Snapchat, which allows users to share pictures and videos which disappear from the recipient's device, irrevocably, after a period of time. I still don't understand what the point of Snapchat is, exactly, or why I would want to actually use it, but perhaps that doesn't matter: perhaps its point, if it has to have one, is to act as metaphor, or as catalyst for conversation. Certainly there's been a spate of good writing about it recently, so I think it's probably earned its keep in the lexicon of essayists and theorists (and, in the case of this post, amateur bloggers). "A photograph is made of time as much as it is of light," writes Nathan Jurgenson:

- a frozen shutter-speed-size gap of the present captured within a photo border. There's always the possibility that the next photo you take will one day be lovingly removed from a box by some unborn great-grandchild; the Polaroid developing in your hands might come to be pinned to someone's bedpost in posterity. To update that to more contemporary terms, your selfie on Instagram might be a signpost for the future you of what it was like to be this young.

On Snapchat, images have no such future. Fittingly, its logo is a ghost.

The symbolism of the ghost is loaded; I'm reminded of Steven Conner, writing that "[a] haunted place has become stuck in time, or time has been scored into it", or, for that matter, of Edward Thomas, writing about Oxford in 1903: "The past and the dead have here, as it were, a corporate life. They are an influence, an authority; they create and legislate to-day…as I walk, I seem to be in the living past." It's a reminder that although something may disappear (and everything disappears eventually) it isn't necessarily erased: that's what memory's for. The temporary photograph may lose its form, become disembodied (or re-embodied), but it may still leave an imprint. The temporary photograph was made to be shared, and sharing has the potential to be a form of remembering, or at least a form of noticing, a way of heightening "awareness of the here and now".

Jurgenson writes:

The photograph, for all its promised immortality, always hinted at death…Documenting the present as a future past, as conventional photographs do, asserts the facts of change, impermanence, and mortality. The temporary photograph does the opposite: It interrupts the traditional photographic fixation of the present as impending history by posting a present moment that's not concerned with the past or the future. As such, the temporary photograph is necessarily less sentimental and nostalgic. By being quick, the temporary photograph is a tiny protest against time.

Is it fair to extrapolate all this from an app which, according to its creators, is primarily about "the beauty of friendship - […] the lightness of being"? Maybe not fair, but certainly possible. Of course, the temporary photograph is concerned with the future: it's concerned with evading it, concerned with being gone before the future arrives. What's happened to time, maybe, is that we've dared to think we can somehow manipulate our perception of it. But we're still left with this uncomfortable fact, this understanding of the temporary photograph as a moment in time and therefore - tiny protest though it may be - very much of time. "The past is a projection as well as a determinant of the present," writes James Donald - and every future will be a present and a past.


Place is the convergence of not just past, present, and future, but also of "past as projection and determinant of present", "present as future past", and so on: it's the form that the temporal tangle takes. That is to say, as Malcolm McCullough writes: "Life takes place". Life takes place: it occurs, and it occurs somewhere specifically - the kitchen, the city, the hillside, the library, the field. Place is also, as the geographer Patricia Price writes, "a processual, polyvocal, always-becoming entity". It's subject to shifts of mood, memory, and other equally unstable processes. It's subject to the same pressures of time that human life is. Places age; they show cracks in the ground or erosion of cliff-faces instead of wrinkles under the eyes, in gleaming new buildings where once lay the buried dead or a fallow field - not erasing history but building on it, literally - but they do age. The temporary photo doesn't age: the temporary photo attempts to train our attention on an isolated present, if such a thing exists - the here and the now, coexisting, on the verge of disappearing (it's possible, too, that we ascribe more meaning to what's fleeting than less). The Fitbit turns our understanding of mortality on its head: all that data collected, all those healthy miles logged, and for what? For the hope, maybe, that we can be briefly free in the city, briefly and powerfully in place - never mind the future, the weight gained and lost, the breath quickening and slowing. We're doing it to improve ourselves, but also to be ourselves.

The question, then, isn't so much, "what is technology doing to our sense of time? - it's, "what is technology allowing us to say about our sense of time?" If technology has the power to create a "projected awareness of the here and now," or to fixate "the present as always a future past", what does a future-past-present actually look like, geographically? How much of the here and now is actually neither here nor now?

I don't know - "All I can say now is it involves ghosts and the past and the present and the future all at the same time."