Is Now Special?
Among the ranks of time periods – day, season, year, decade, century, era, age, eon and so on, the present moment has always commanded an exalted status, quite disproportionate to its insignificant size. Countless songs and films urge one to live in the present moment (because ‘tomorrow may or may not be’ as in 2003 Shahrukh Khan’s widening arm span so memorably advised everyone from the Brooklyn bridge). You are suspended in it. How possibly could the past or the future compare?
News and media are predicated on the perception of now as a special moment. You can hear it in the diction and branding. News breaks. Events are “unprecedented” or “momentous”. That which is happening now is extraordinary. Sorry, that which is happening now is extraordinary!
Yet, very little ever truly is. Take a few guesses as to when the following words were first uttered:
Our fathers’ age was worse than our grandfathers’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.
Guess again. That is the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, c. 20 BCE. On the surface, it could easily be read to affirm our collective apprehension that times have steadily gotten worse. And yet, if people have always made that exact lament – and you know they have, because all authors and your grandparents did – then the ages are essentially all the same.
Commentary on the imminent threat of ‘globalization’ or from immigrants of the other culture must certainly go back all the way to when those first two tribes traded sharp obsidian tools for some high-calorie grain. History books are full too of quotes from wise people lamenting the advent of the latest technology and the concomitant loss of culture. In a broad sense, the human condition does not really fundamentally change, or at least hasn’t much since the Neolithic revolution. The French even say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.
Even if you do not take to that view, it is harder to ignore the simpler fact that with a longer historical view, now in one part of the world looks a lot like the last century in other parts. “History doesn’t repeat itself, it just moves east”, is how political analyst Dan Schnur puts it. In his 2000 book, Provincializing Europe, Dipesh Chakrabarty observes that in centuries past, Europeans spoke of experiencing eastward journeys as a sort of time-travel. Perhaps some of them still feel that way in modern times. Even within a single city, to this day, citizens of New Delhi will describe the wonder of alighting from the subway at Chandni Chowk as that of having stepped back in time. In countries like China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Iraq, Italy, Mali, Mexico and others, some postcodes are like bubbles in which history seems stuck. Moments can feel not just insignificant and unexceptional but indistinguishable.
At any rate, to separate one moment in time from another, you need a way to reify and name the interstitial gaps – that list we began with. We call it measuring time. Readers probably know the entire history of human time-measuring technology – through sundials, candles, water clocks to hourglasses, pendula, piezoelectric crystals and so on. Ironically we call it time-keeping even though we recognize that the sands of time constantly slip between fingers – there’s no ‘keeping’ time.
Incidentally, the most accurate clocks today are far too accurate to serve the pedestrian purpose of keeping time. Cesium atomic clocks that have been around for decades were already sufficiently accurate enough for setting and synchronizing all our secondary time keepers. Instead, the optical single-ion clocks announced only last year were developed to improve technologies like GPS, which is not mainly about keeping time at all. It is about keeping track of distance.
Speaking of GPS, to a physicist, there really isn’t any such thing as a ‘now’ moment. Because time is relative, of course. Have you ever had tea ‘together’ with a friend in Ghana over Skype? No such thing, cannot happen, physics says. Time is relative to the speed at which observers move and contextual to their gravitational environment, as the reader doubtless knew. Weirder still, and more pertinent to this piece, under the observable effects of Relativity, the present moment ‘extends’ with distance. What you perceive as an infinitesimal instant is nanoseconds longer across the room, even longer on another continent, and stretches to a few seconds at the moon. By the time your interlocutor gets as far as Mars, everything that happens within a span of 15 minutes there would appear to be instantaneous and simultaneous to us at Earth. At least over Skype from Ghana snacking ‘together’ has some meaning because the effects of Relativity are not perceptible at that distance, great as it is. If your niece grew rich enough to migrate to a Martian colony, there would be little scientific sense to an attempt at doing anything at the ‘same moment’. In fact, the order of any two widely separated events in the universe is reversible unless they are causally connected.
Sorry for that rapid flypast by physics. You prefer biology? Plants use the duration of daylight to measure relatively long periods and clock shorter events in biochemical reactions. A molecule reacts with another and they change into new molecules. The reaction proceeds at a set rate, which is to say, the original molecules vanish and the new ones appear at a fixed rate. When the chemical ‘potential’ or concentration of one of those molecules reaches a pre-defined value, the plant ‘knows’ how much time has elapsed. That is how the touch-me-not decides when it is safe to unfurl back out. A ‘now’ only matters to a small subset of plants such as the carnivorous Venus Fly-trap, which needs to react immediately when the hapless fly lands or it will go hungry. To most plants and trees, periods of time passage matter. Moments emphatically do not.
Animals possibly care more, but probably not much more. It is important to be focused on the present during a hunt, but even if it is successful, minutes later you are worrying about other things. Savouring the moment is likely not a luxury afforded to many other than alpha male apex predators or large matriarch herbivores, because they have to get busy with childcare, looking out for predators, finding a safe spot to rest at night, stave off mating competition, finding the next meal and so on.
We too instinctively know that now is not really all that special. In magazine quizzes when people are asked, “If you had a time machine, what moment in time would you go to?”, nobody ever says, “Right now, this very moment in time, obviously!” Though that’s probably because hardly anything is as boring and pathetic as filling out magazine quizzes.
So, when science and history both tell us there really isn’t anything special about now, why do humans put such a high premium on it? Perhaps it has to do with that most enduring human mystery – consciousness. We doubtless began wondering about it around the same time as grappling with things like fire, the stars, love etc. and we have cracked all of those others, right down to their molecular causes.
Of consciousness, this much we know: if our brains were wired in a way that it took about five minutes to process a stimulus and experience something, we would probably not call it consciousness and whatever that version was called would probably not be such a big deal worth figuring out. You would only smell the rose garden a while after your wagon passed it. You were in a queue at Mauritshuis in The Hague and only begin to feel the depth of a Vermeer long after people have elbowed your eyes away from the frame. Your teeth feel the texture of the mooncake first and the taste reaches you some time after the dessert is gone. It would be hard to boast to other animals about that level of consciousness.
The present moment holds such value because consciousness draws on our senses all being synchronized. You cannot touch the things you see in a dream or on your screen. When characters in a film meet each other at an airport, the hug is part of the actor’s immediate reality – their brain fires oxytocin coursing through their veins. The onscreen hug is a part of your own minutes in a very different way. No matter how good the film, a vicarious experience is but a faint echo of the ‘real’ deal.
What really shapes the magnitude of present moments, moments in which you are present, is the size of the subset of your 21 or more senses the immediate experience has managed to directly engage. For that is the only way it has any hope of associating itself to a desirable future or ensuring a place in the memorable past. If you are invested and interested deeply enough in whatever you are doing now, it will earn you the reward that you will later ascribe to it. You work hard enough now and you will earn that bit of success you aimed at. You show love deeply enough now, you will have the sort of warm and glowing memory of the kind that only relationships can offer.
That is how the now moment strives to extend its existence beyond the infinitesimal it is otherwise destined to.
But that only serves to underscore the point. The present moment derives importance only if it breaks through the rather tight boundaries of ‘now’ and forges bridges to the past and future. If it outgrows its size and ceases to be its miniscule self. It seems ‘now’ does not and cannot have any inherent and exclusive value of its own at all. Nothing special about now.