To quote the great Willie Nelson, who of course was streaming live earlier this week to celebrate 4/20, “Hello walls.” I bet when he wrote that he had no idea that it would become our unofficial national anthem.
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The Plain View
For the past couple of decades, we’ve had a shorthand to describe the speed of our wacky wired world: internet time. The term describes the blindingly rapid pace of change fueled by superfast processors, ubiquitous connectivity, and devilish innovation. Paradigm shifts used to take a generation, forced to wait their turn until those set in their ways literally died off. In internet time, generations were measured not in human life spans but in years—and then months, and then weeks—as new ideas and disruptions pulsed into the digital mindstream.
Since much of the world went into shelter mode in early March, we’ve been online more than ever. One might argue that our lockdown, along with the the adoption of tools to help ease our adjustment to it, has been our most rapid and widespread change of all. And yet it doesn’t feel like we’re on internet time anymore. Quite the opposite: Time has suddenly stopped moving. The digital clock that notes thousandths of a second is suddenly an hourglass with molasses in the sand.
That’s our new reality: Without offices to go to—or, in too many cases, jobs to go to—time has become an undifferentiated lump. We sleep late or don’t seem to sleep at all. We have trouble remembering what day it is. Milestones marking the passage through each season—the baseball season opener, the release of blockbuster movies, outdoor rock festivals—have disappeared from our calendars. Once we celebrated the end of the week by crowing TGIF. But there are no weekends when days are a Mobius strip of sameness. TGIF has been replaced by a grateful exhale of TGIA—thank God I’m alive. (So far.)
That’s the paradox of this wretched period. Because even though pretty much every waking moment is now a digitally connected one, we are no longer on internet time. We’re on Groundhog Time.
I’m referring of course to that movie in which Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day, over and over and over again. Others have noted the parallel—it’s hard to miss. But actual groundhogs have it much better. If they see their shadows, all they have to do is plunge back into their dens for six more weeks. Amateurs! We’ve been under house arrest for six weeks, and we’re only getting started. Maybe the governor of Georgia thinks that we’re ready to go out and get tattooed, but some of the smartest realists among us already have made sober predictions that time is going to stand still for quite a while longer.
Mark Zuckerberg told his workforce that returning to the office will be done slowly, with no business travel through this June. More tellingly, he announced that Facebook will not hold events with more than 50 people until June 2021. Do you know how often Facebook used to hold events that gathered more than 50 people? A lot. Bill Gates just unloaded his own assessment of the situation, saying “If in the spring of 2021 people are going to big public events—like a game or concert in a stadium—it will be because we have a miraculous treatment that made people feel confident about going out again.” Here’s a news flash: Gates is not a magical-thinking kind of guy. When he talks of something that will happen only if a miracle occurs, he’s saying it will not happen. We’re almost certainly stuck waiting for a vaccine. The process for producing one does not happen on internet time.
So while we live on the net, it no longer dictates our cadence. Instead, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day. Groundhog Time.
As internet time was kicking in, back in the late 1990s, scientist Danny Hillis, who once built one of the world’s fastest computers, was designing one of the slowest: a clock meant to last for 10,000 years. When I wrote about it in 1999 for Newsweek, it seemed like a steampunk pipe dream. (My editors made fun of the story.) But now, Jeff Bezos is actually building that clock in West Texas:
In one sense, the clock’s story is already having an effect. Some who hear it are building their own clocks, of their own design. For others, resetting their mental tickers has led them to consider our culture’s long-term legacy … After working with the clock, says Brian Eno, “I’m thinking more long-term about projects. I ask not only what fruits I’m getting, but what seeds I’m planting.” [Hillis] will settle for this: People expanding their own temporal horizons, realizing perhaps that we have a claim on time even past our own allotted three score and 10. “I think we all want to see where we fit into the picture,” says Hillis, who is dead serious about making his once whimsical idea into breathtaking reality. “It might take me the rest of my own life, and I might only start the process, but I’d say that the odds of a monumental-scale clock being built were very good.”
Ask Me One Thing
Elizabeth, a student in Princeton’s class of ‘22, asks: “What do you think about the future of VR, and are you scared of people living their lives exclusively in a VR world such as Facebook Horizons? On a similar note, what do we need to keep in mind when developing AR/XR to ensure we as humans stay connected in the real world?”
Hi, Elizabeth, I hope you are staying safe. Please tell me, what is this “real world” you refer to?
Certainly it can’t be the one you are living in now, where all your instruction takes place in what my friend John Perry Barlow used to call cyberspace, and the realest part of your education is the tuition. I think that VR/AR/XR efforts will be pursued with more urgency to improve on the lousy, low-res virtual world that your phone and laptop are providing in this Zoom-y era. My guess is that the companies like Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, who have been trying to push scientific advances in these fields (and to push down the price of providing those high-res experiences), are now doubling down on their efforts. (In other words, it was a bad time for augmented-reality startup Magic Leap to lay off half its workforce.)
You’re rightly concerned that too much artificial reality might not be a good thing. But the XR part of the equation—that stands for “extended reality,” a mix of virtual, augmented and maybe even reality according to our unenhanced senses—is probably our long-term future. Let’s hope that future includes physically leaving the house. And hugs.
You can submit questions to email@example.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
On Tuesday, the New York City Emergency Notification System issued a tornado warning for Manhattan and the Bronx. Covid-19 isn’t enough?
Last but Not Least
Megan Molteni’s gripping story of being caught in Argentina’s abrupt coronavirus lockdown contains a damning rebuke of the US tardiness to act.
What makes Nick Thompson run? In a moving tale of fathers, sons, and Nike technology, our editor in chief examines why he was driven to become a top-notch marathoner in middle age.
Inside the astonishing market for Magic: The Gathering cards. One went for $166,000!
It’s come to this: how to cut your hair at home. Recommended even if you live in Georgia.
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