The Condition of Atemporality

by wjw on February 26, 2010

Y’know, Bruce Sterling thinks about this shit real hard. And a couple weeks ago he delivered a speech that shows how far ahead of us he really is.

Now let me tell you how the atemporal Richard Feynman approaches this. The atemporal Richard Feynman is not very paper-friendly, because he lives in a network culture. So it occurs to the atemporal Feynman that he may, or may not, have a problem.

‘Step one – write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already. Step two – write problem in my blog; study the commentory cross-linked to other guys. Step three – write my problem in Twitter in a hundred and forty characters. See if I can get it that small. See if it gets retweeted. Step four – open source the problem; supply some instructables to get me as far as I’ve been able to get, see if the community takes it any further. Step five – start a Ning social network about my problem, name the network after my problem, see if anybody accumulates around my problem. Step six – make a video of my problem. Youtube my video, see if it spreads virally, see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem. Step seven – create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. Create some gadget or application or product that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it. Step eight – exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media. And step nine – find some kind of pretty illustrations from the Flickr ‘Looking into the Past’ photo pool.’

So, old Feynman, who was not the atemporal Feynman, would naturally object: ‘You have not solved the problem! You have not advanced scientific knowledge. There is no progress in this. You didn’t get to Step three – solving the problem.’ Whereas, the atemporal Feynman would respond: ‘It’s worse than that. I haven’t even done step one of defining the problem and writing it down. But I have done a lot of work about its meaning, and its value and its social framing, combined with some database mining, and some collaborative filtering, which is far beyond you and your pencil.’

Now, history is a story. And to write down the story of the fourteenth century, to just ask yourself – “what happened in the fourteenth century?” — Feynman style — is a very different matter from asking the atemporal question: “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘fourteenth century?’” I think we are over the brink of that. It’s a very, very different matter . . .

. . . It means the end of post-modernism. It means the end of the New World Order, which is about civilizing the entire planet, stopping all the land wars, repressing the terrorism. It means the end of the Washington Consensus of the nineteen nineties. It means the end of the WTO. It means the end of Francis Fukiyama’s ‘End of History’; it ended, and it’s moving in a completely different and unexpected direction.

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work – it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Now part of this is just that the arguments of historians have moved out of their usual dusty forums and into places where any idiot can read them. Historians don’t argue about the facts; they always argue over what the facts mean. Except now they do it in electronic format with a comment section, and the responses of goofballs and fanatics can be seen alongside those of the specialists and intelligentsia. Are the dingbats empowered by this? Not really, no one’s handing them the keys to any kingdom except a virtual one. So I don’t think that’s the dilemma we need to respond to, or worry about.

But otherwise, Bruce is definitely onto something here. So go over there, and read the speech, and then come back here, and discuss it.

S.M. Stirling February 27, 2010 at 4:37 am

It's amazing that people can see catastrophes that don't exist, simply because they want to.

This is, in fact, a very good period; it's very peaceful by the standards of the last century; more and more people are not-poor.

So where does this narrative of crisis-and-collapse come from?

Dru February 27, 2010 at 4:24 pm

The machine spins fastest just before it breaks.

Rebecca S. February 27, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Here's an academic medievalist's amusing rebuttal to Sterling's speech.

Foxessa February 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Interesting and provocative. For some reason Bruce's exposition brings to mind Samuel Delany's Babel-17 (1966), in which the problem was that everyone discussed and assessed and analyzed and speculated, but nobody went and LOOKED. 🙂

Nevertheless for now I'll stick with Postmamboism for our historical work. It's serving well — with all thanks due to Fernand Braudel and compañero/as.

Love, C.

Foxessa February 27, 2010 at 10:29 pm

The other thing though is that he's created a fine example of how an historian approaches history and how, as he stresses himself, a novelist treats history.

The historian then, deals as best s/he can with history.

A novelist, well, no matter the research, is making it up.

Two different jobs here.

Love, c.

dubjay March 1, 2010 at 6:30 am

Bruce approached his subject matter more or less as Atemporal Feynmann did. He didn't define the problem, or even atemporality, but he gave examples that hinted at what he wanted to talk about, and he showed how the examples fit into the vague sort-of-societal frame occupied by the "creative artist," whose problems he specifically wanted to address.

Bruce doesn't see a catastrophe, exactly, but a crisis caused by the lack of a map and the failure of ideology. Communism failed, science fiction failed, religion isn't even in the picture, capitalism not only failed but demonstrated how it could flow around any proposed solutions and then fail again, with equally catastrophic results.

He suggests modes of keeping your fictions alive, but he doesn't have a solution to the wider problem.

And thanks, Rebecca, for pointing me at medieval guy. He really brightened my day.

halojones-fan March 2, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Stirling: It's easy to understand why people want crises when you think about how dog-fuckingly boring most people's lives are. Who wouldn't want to see The End Of The World? (particularly when we all secretly believe that we'd not only live through it but come out on top.)

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