Thursday, October 10, 2013

Complex Time and Education

A discussion of complex time can too easily become abstract and abstruse, at least for me, but I don't think it necessarily must become so. Time is one of those basic concepts that pretty much informs everything else, even education (I say education with some tongue in cheek, maybe the whole tongue in cheek), so Time has practical implications. The problem is that we usually don't know-tice those implications because they are so basic. Like air, we don't raise Time to consciousness until it's gone or changed. Then we notice too late.

What I take from my readings of Smolin and Serres is that Time is not what we think it is. It is not the regular march of events, all queued up in a neatly progressing, laminar flow, which we can accurately measure and rely on to synchronize our activities. This view of time, which is really quite modern as most any study of the technology of timekeeping will demonstrate, is part of humanity's efforts to wrench the natural complexity of the world into the simple domain for our convenience. Wrenching natural complexity into some kind of simplicity is one of the great works of humanity, taking up much of our energies and time. Simple, limited categories with simple, limited actions and interactions make life so much easier in so many ways. To fall back on a trivial example I have used elsewhere in this blog, we want a well-ordered sock drawer that makes it easy to keep, manage, and retrieve our socks. The problem is that much of life doesn't like being confined to neatly arranged sock drawers. Certainly people don't, but that doesn't stop us from trying to put them there.

Likewise, we want to make Time a simple, limited sock drawer, neatly and regularly progressing, each second, hour, and day named, labeled, and marching by to a strict and universal metronomic beat. This view of Time has great benefits: from helping us show up for dinner on time to helping us launch a spacecraft to Mars. We cannot easily dismiss the affordances of a regular Time proceeding along a single, segmented, straight line. Unfortunately, actual Time—the Time that exists out there in the wild—seems to care for our single, segmented, straight line about as much as a litter of puppies do.

If Smolin is correct, then Time is not eternal and unchanging. Rather, it is something like an emergent property of the Universe, and it changes as that Universe changes, and as we slip among different scales of the Universe at different speeds. Time percolates, as Serres says it. I really like that image: percolation, the uneven flow through a textured boundary. I'm not sure that Time is in fact a flow at all, but flow does capture the sense of movement that we have when we experience time, and percolation captures the sense we have that some times move differently than other times, while still other times don't move at all. Moreover, for Serres, the Past and the Future are not flat, geometrically regular structures; rather, they are rich, textured topographies with hills, valleys, cliffs, reversals, and dead ends. Time flows like a river, then, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes caught in eddies, sometimes backing up. At any one point of the river, some part of the river can be flowing in most any direction.

Needless to say, then, Time—the actual Time that we swim in—often disregards or even violates our simple, sock drawer arrangement of time. Consider, for instance, my reading of Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time by Serres and Latour. We like to think that a book—like Time—follows a linear progression with a clear starting point (the Big Bang) and proceeding in some orderly fashion through to the end, and that we can measure this in some kind of words per minute (say, 100 WPM as numbers combined with acronyms often enhance our sense that we are measuring something significant). We should build the meaning of the book bit by bit at 100 WPM, accreting meaning, until we have fashioned the complete edifice, but that isn't what happened to me in this book, and as I think about it, it doesn't happen to me in most books—at least not the ones I would ever reread. The reading proceeds very unevenly, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and sometimes completely reversing itself. The reading percolates, and that reading is bound up in Time. It takes time to read, and that time percolates like oil oozing through fracked bedrock. There is no metronome, or not one that makes sense.

Most of Time is like this: oil oozing through bedrock, coughing, gushing, slipping laterally, backing up, and we confuse and frustrate ourselves when we forget that time is like this.

I am not, however, arguing that we all throw away our timepieces and revert to Grateful Dead time. We cannot overlook the powerful affordances of simple, regularized time, and some important processes are still dependent on this kind of time, but we should never forget that it is a fiction, and we should not be surprised when Time slips the sock drawer and oozes in some direction we did not expect. Most importantly, we should not try to preserve simple time when it is no longer beneficial—for instance, when we are educating people.

An industrial, factory age relied overwhelmingly on a consistent, regular, ubiquitous measure of Time. The assembly line demanded it, and it helped us to build the 20th century. We educated the majority of our societies based on this mechanical, simple time. We built, and destroyed, much with the assembly line model of space and time, but most of us have moved beyond the assembly line model. We live in a networked world, not a mechanical factory world; however, we are still educating in a factory model. We move people through educational programs in batches, all at the same time, all at the same pace, all measured at the same regular intervals, all based on the same simple view of Time. The affordances of such a time structure are disappearing, and in most places, they are long since gone. Now, such a model actually hinders education rather than helping. We should let it go. It's time for education to percolate. We have the tools to do it—now we just need the mindset.
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