Friday, July 16, 2010

The Patience of Cellular Owners and the Strangeness of Time

I had a curious realization the other day, as my phone rang about twelve times before I managed to answer it. Before cellular phones were as widespread as they are today, most people gave up on a call after five or six rings at the most. Now that people tend to call from and to cellular phones, we actually tend to be a lot more patient than we used to about waiting for an answer on the phone.

It probably has to do with the phone no longer being in a fixed location. On a land line, when the phone rings, you know exactly where to go to answer it. A cellular phone can be anywhere, or underneath, anything within earshot of its ringer. So a caller now anticipates having to wait around for the phone to be found in some absurd location like the pocket of an old pair of pants, underneath a pile of unpaid phone bills, or in the fridge. I find it amusing because the cliché of technology is that it makes us harried and impatient, yet we’re willing to wait for twelve or fifteen rings before concluding that no one is answering the phone.
I’ve also been planning a future philosophy project about time. Basically, English language philosophy of time remains dominated by the McTaggart argument that time is unreal. In 1908, John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart wrote a paper that showed the logical inconsistency, and therefore impossibility, of the concepts of past, present, and future. An event X has to be the same event before it occurs as when it’s occurring and when it has occurred. So all its properties have to be the same, including its properties of pastness, presentness, or futurity.

But these properties all change as the event moves from future to present to past, so it can’t be the same event. But we can still talk about event X no matter when it’s occurring relative to us. So the properties of any event must not include its being past, present or future. Since these properties constitute time, no event can have time properties, therefore time is unreal.

This differs radically from the approach to time of Antonio Negri, an Italian philosopher whose ideas have come to dominate European philosophy of time. In his books and articles throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Negri considers time as it is experienced in life, and all of the social, political, and economic factors that shape our experience and understanding of time. For every mode of production and labouring, there is a kind of experience of time, each conditioning a different way of life and way of understanding existence.

So which is most important? McTaggart’s abstract understanding of time as a set of ordered events? Negri’s understanding of living time shaped by a societal apparatus of production? Those who know me well might assume I’m leaning towards an answer of both. However, I do think Negri’s approach to time is more philosophically productive, because it includes a concept of becoming: production. McTaggart’s doesn’t.

Actually, McTaggart’s argument forcibly prevents a concept of becoming from interacting with the concept of event. All events always exist in a particular order, along which our subjective consciousness moves. But a concept of production requires that events be made by some ongoing activity. So this looks like the one philosophical project where I actually choose sides, argue for one camp against another. Mark this in your calendars; it may never happen again.


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