Sunday, 20 September 2015
All about time
On the matter of time, and my participation in the consultation on the European Commission’s FET Proactive Programme, here I present my input on the topic Time for Time, but dealing also with Art Practice as Research and also the so-called Global System Science. And what follows is that input about time:
Put aside now your notions of the arrow of time, of time the independent variable, of time the dependent variable. Look beyond irreversible processes that point to the uni-directional nature of this arrow of time, or to its illusory nature when it comes to deterministic equations which work equally well when time runs forward or backwards. Forget matters of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years and so on, which are but human notions for the counting of time. Think not about the linear view of time, with its chronological ordering of events, both natural and human. All these things are but the product of the rational mind, of objective thought, of which there is already far too much!
I invite you instead to enter a different world, one of artistic making, where the subjective is important, and where time can be bent by creative will, and in doing so becomes not any of the above, but something profoundly different – a product of the imagination, from which flows a simple question, and on this turns the beginnings of ideas for technologies and processes far beyond the limiting horizons of the obvious and distracting pretty pebbles of time, lying, so to speak, on the seashore, while a greater ocean of truth remains unseen.
Time you see, in this world that I created – in a work of fiction called Moments in Time, being a novel about time, and that which is timeless and that which is not – can be seen in a different way. In this strange book you will find, if one cares to look closely and explore the messages hidden there, that time is always, a single moment in time, in which all other moments in time, past and future, co-exist in this one time that is known as the present for the person who is experiencing that moment. And from this comes the simple question to which I referred: how would our view of the world change, if we could create a technology and processes that would make such a subjective understanding of time, a human understanding of time, where past, present and future co-exist, a reality to share with others?
Before I answer this question, which in effect will also explain why we should do this and its importance, I want to mention the process by which I came to this subjective understanding of time.
I spent over ten years writing Moments in Time, and did very little research about time, for this was not to be a book of facts and knowledge, but a work of the imagination. In creating my imaginary world, which is in no way connected to science fiction, I did something that few, if any one, has done before – I lived for an extended period, in my imagination, in two times separated by over 250 years, for this is the storyline. And the tale is not one enabled by a time machine, the act of human creation so much seen in time related fiction, but by the universe itself behaving counter to what modern science believes – yes your eyes do not deceive you, I am saying believes.
This imaginative process, this act of creation, is a key point that I want to address. Elsewhere in this consultation (under ideas for new topics) there is a proposal presented of art being used in ICT research. There was a FET Open project (a CSA), known as FET-ART, that addressed this issue, and spoke of co-creation, where artists and technologists work together, and artists participate in research projects. What I have briefly presented above is an example of artistic expression being used in ICT research, with this note being one result – a proposal for a new research topic. But this is not the outcome of co-creation, but of creation that results when two (possibly more!) areas of quite contrasting knowledge and skills co-exist in one mind.
So it was not the process of background research (which I have already told you was quite small) that I undertook for the book that led me to this subjective understanding of time, but the act of artistic creation itself. This resulted in new insights and new knowledge about time, as it is experienced subjectively by humans. This process has a name: it is called art practice as research, or art as research, or creative arts enquiry. It uses the artistic process, whether that be painting, dance, music composition, creative writing (like writing a weird novel about time), etc., as a means of producing new knowledge. And I cannot stress here enough, the importance of the subjective nature of the knowledge, for this also relates to the common misunderstanding that science is entirely based on the rational and objective, which it most definitely is not!
Here I just quote from the work of another writer, one of the most outstanding thinkers and artists of the 20th century, Arthur Koestler (who was also a physicist by education), who studied the matter of scientific (and artistic) creativity in depth, and said in his book The Act of Creation: “Here, then, is the apparent paradox. A branch of knowledge which operates predominantly with abstract symbols, whose entire rationale and credo are objectivity, verifiability, logicality, turns out to be dependent upon mental processes which are subjective, irrational, and verifiable only after the event.” This will of course sit uncomfortably with those whose self-image is one of being rational, objective, and evidence-based. More about this follows shortly.
The power of art practice as research is that it links to subjectivity and makes it explicit, and this leads to strange notions and questions which are essential to the creative process (be it scientific, technological, artistic, etc.), which in turn links to the more objective work that follows as a result. Art practice as research however is not primarily a matter of co-creation, nor even a question of interdisciplinary research, but mainly one of transdisciplinary working, which has profound implications for Global Systems Science, about which I will say more, later. I suspect that Leonardo da Vinci and his contemporaries would have known what I am talking about, but many modern (fragmented) minds, often only knowing a lot about very little, and having been subjected to the legacy of the Age of Enlightenment, do not. Instead they usually believe in dualities and the need for co-creation, and hence do not understand that there is a unity of opposites (in this case of art and science) – or put another way, a oneness in that which many people now see as being separate and different.
Now back to the matter of this question I posed, which I here remind you was: how would our view of the world change, if we could create a technology and processes that would make such a subjective understanding of time, a human understanding of time, where past, present and future co-exist, a reality to share with others? I can tell you that, as a result of the experience of constructing in my imagination and living in a rather strange world where all time co-exists at a single moment in time, has brought about a radical transformation in the way that I see the world, for I now look and see time at work, and, as a result, also see many things that others are blind to.
Here I introduce to you the topic of Behavioural Agriculture, which very likely you will not have heard of, for the book that I am writing on this has not yet been published. The topic is the product of transcending disciplines, of unifying many opposites, and bringing knowledge, both subjective and objective, and from quite dissimilar domains, together, to form a very different perspective on agriculture – one based on behaviour set in the context of time, past, present and future, all co-existing in a single moment in time.
One of these dissimilar domains is cognitive psychology, the same research in fact that Behavioural Economics is founded on, hence the name Behavioural Agriculture, only in this case there is more than just cognitive psychology and macro economics in play, but also philosophy of science; agronomy; biology; history; genetics; ecology and much more … This however is another story.
What is important are the findings from research in cognitive psychology, that people, all people (scientists included), make decisions based on cognitive biases. These biases are acquired over time and they lead people to make many mistakes, but people often do not recognise these mistakes or the reasons for them, and they actually engage in the delusion that what they are doing is rational, objective, … But worse still, is the finding that this is in our genes, and for very good evolutionary reasons, but which no longer apply. Thus what was once an asset for survival has now become a potential liability, for it leads humans to make serious mistakes, and this has profound implications for all sorts of processes – Global Systems Science, the way science is conducted, the development of policy, the design of future agricultural systems, the development of sustainable economies, the redesign of financial systems... The list is quite long! See also how time makes its appearance here.
In the case of agriculture, the cognitive biases at work today took hold about 10,000 years ago. These were significantly reinforced in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in rigid mental frameworks that lead people today – scientists, technologists, engineers, policymakers and others – to do that which is no longer fit for purpose, but which they regard as been objective, rational, evidence-based, etc. But they cannot see this, for they do not know or understand that which is timeless and that which is not. This has serious and dangerous implications in the longer term (future time) for humanity, but if we could bring time past and future to bear in the present, to make the cognitive biases visible, along with subjective matters such as values and beliefs, we could instead make a different future. This is also part of the storyline in Moments in Time.
And just as one can refer to Behavioural Agriculture, one can also speak about Behavioural Global Systems Science. To what extent is Global Systems Science just the past presenting itself as the future, because it brings with it, that which is no longer relevant, and that which does not recognise cognitive bias and human delusions? How much of Global Systems Science is founded on the misunderstanding that science is only about the rational, the objective and the logical, because it is based on self-image and misunderstandings rather than what science really is?
Here perhaps one can see the importance of time past, and of creating a technology that brings time past into the present, for it can be said that time reveals the patterns in life, the trail that is often unknowingly followed, and provides the vantage point from which understanding begins to emerge, which casts past events in a different light, pointing towards a path that could be followed in the future. And time is important to the future as well, because, for example, one of most fundamental principles (if one can call it such) of sustainability, is that we should not do today, that which leaves an unwanted legacy for future generations. We are in our own time dealing with unwanted legacies created by previous generations – but we are doing exactly the same ourselves, and leaving unwanted legacies for our children, with the added danger that what we create today will overwhelm them. Is it not time to change?
This is one of the core messages to be found in Moments in Time. And it could be that Global Systems Science will provide the means of changing behaviour and exposing the delusions that lie behind our current self-inflicted woes. You will also find these woes depicted in the novel, in the form of the unintended and unforeseen consequences of the actions of the central character who, being an icon of the modern world, an industrial age engineer, strangely finds that he fits into 1750 with great ease! See here the creative act at work, where through the means of the imagination and the subjective, that which is timeless and that which is not is explored.
However, for Global Systems Science to become a means of changing behaviour, the potential that lies within Global Systems Science has to be recognised, and this involves moving beyond thinking of this as a means of supporting policymaking, and to re-conceiving it as a more advanced way of doing science, which of course also involves policymaking, but which also involves undertaking scientific research, and, potentially designing completely different systems than those that exist today.
So instead of carrying on with a science based on a reductionist and mechanistic world-view, which creates many problems, we could re-invent science. Instead of working with the agricultural system that exists today, and adding new bits here and there to supposedly make it more sustainable, we could reinvent it completely. Instead of working with global financial markets as they exist today, trying to make them more stable and less damaging, by changing policies, we could reinvent these systems completely. And this, if you have not already realised, is exactly what we need to do. But you will not so easily recognise this if you do not know that which is timeless and that which is not! And to reinvent one needs creativity, thus once again we are back to matter of subjectivity which is an essential aspect of creation.
What I am proposing is a radical rethink of Global Systems Science, which involves bringing time and behaviour to the fore, and also laying to rest this obsession with the rational and the objective and embracing also the subjective, the irrational, the qualitative, with an accompanying reconsideration of what constitutes so-called evidence. It is also necessary to move beyond the now standard call for an interdisciplinary approach, and to embrace transciplinarity – transcending largely artificial disciplinary boundaries, reassembling knowledge in a different way, and moving beyond dualities.
Arthur Koestler, in his book The Act of Creation, says, after examining the self-reflections of many leading scientists across history: “Their virtually unanimous emphasis on spontaneous intuitions, unconscious guidance, and sudden leaps of imagination which they are all at a loss to explain, suggests that the role of strictly rational thought-processes in scientific discovery has been vastly over-estimated since the Age of Enlightenment; and that contrary to the Cartesian bias in our beliefs ‘full consciousness’, in the words of Einstein, ‘is a limit case’.”
Koestler is right, and this is another reason why we need to bring artists into research, into FET, into Global Systems Science. And note too, this is the second time I have questioned the legacy of this thing called the Age of Enlightenment. The importance of understanding that which is timeless and that which is not cannot be stressed enough. It comes back to time once again! And if you think that questioning the Age of Enlightenment is out of bounds, think again, for slowly people are beginning to realise that its legacy has become a liability. We need to re-thinking the whole basis upon which our culture is based (see DG CONNECT’s Onlife Initiative https://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/onlife-manifesto), and this is another reason to work with artists, for this is something many of them do as a matter of course. This is why they are so central to the President Barroso’s New Narrative for
And their conclusion is that Europe needs a
new renaissance. We do indeed! Time for
Time within the context of FET Proactive is a very necessary part of this,
for it could bring to this new renaissance, the disruptive ideas and
technologies that will allow more people to understand just how tyrannical the
past is in determining our thinking about the future.
And on this note I also mention Charles Handy, a leading business thinker from the 1980s and 1990s. Handy wrote in his book Beyond Certainty, that when discontinuities occur as a consequence of structural changes in the business environment, the past becomes no guide to the future. These discontinuities can render assumptions and practices invalid and inappropriate. This then makes extrapolating into the future based on the past, an exercise of little value. When discontinuities are present, the success stories of yesterday can have little relevance to the problems of tomorrow. In fact, according to Handy “these success stories might even be damaging since the world, at every level, has to be reinvented to some extent.” In another book, The Age of Unreason, Handy strongly argued that in times of structural change, one should not be taking note of what is reasonable, but should be listening to those who seem to be saying unreasonable things.
We are living through times of massive structural change – in society, in business, in technology, in peoples’ behaviour, in the nature of being human, in human civilisation. So it is time to say what seem to be unreasonable things. We need to bring time into our discussions and begin to recognise that which is timeless and that which is not.
As for the creation of a technology that brings time, past and future, into the present, this is something that I have reflected upon as part of the continuing process of using the novel Moments in Time as act of research and knowledge creation. Elsewhere in the consultation (under ideas for new topics), a number of people mention the importance of art and artists, and also observe that technological development work is being undertaken by artists (see no duality!), and they are right – some artists are technology developers and they are also researchers. These types of artists should be integrated into the ICT programme, and FET Proactive is one of the most obvious places for them to be, because of the transformational potential that they create, and their interest in questioning that which others just accept (like the notion of so called big data) and offering different perspectives that may in turn lead to new ideas.
One of the inputs provided on the topic of ICT and Art, suggests a number of research topics, which include: technologies for uncertainty and technologies for a non-human perspective. These are the kinds of ideas that need to be explored and developed further in this context of Time for Time. I could myself add another one: big data considered not as something to be mastered and controlled, but something to be addressed in a time context: past, present and future.
In my novel I provide a metaphor for the technologies that bring the golden threads of time past and future, into the present, and for experiencing the resulting complex tapestry that this merging creates. I called it the Time House, an architectural construction being “… a house built by two different builders; one working on the physical features, shaping it within the bounds of what is physically possible to meet the needs of those who will live there and make it their home, and the other, unseen, forming it into that which I will, in due course reveal.” Thus, one can conceive of an architectural construct, a physical space, where people (by which I mean scientists, policymakers, members of the public, and many others) come to understand … that which is timeless and that which is not, and also what the future might become because of thoughtless decisions in the present that are masquerading as being based on the rational and objective, and so on and so forth. The potential needs to be further explored.
There is a field of artistic practice called Technoetic Art, which is quite fundamental for creating a realisation of the Time House. Technoetic Art is an area concerned with the technology of consciousness, being a convergent field of practice that seeks to explore consciousness and connectivity through many different means. And Technoetic artists, along with other artists, will bring into this work an important insight, which is that another legacy of the Age of Enlightenment needs to be left outside the Time House. What I am referring to is this notion that humans can be compared to machines! They can of course if that is what you want to do, and this one can observe, is the story of technology development over the past several hundred years, but the point is that humans should not be thus compared. We should be looking at a different type of technology that is not one based on this now familiar refrain: humans are better at …, computers are better at …
And the new enlightenment goes like this: people have characteristics and behaviours determined by genes and social conditioning (acquisition of paradigms!), and we need a technology that brings this to our attention, so that we can make better decisions, with one of these decisions being, that it is we who will take decisions and not computers. Moreover, to replace the human-computer comparability paradigm mentioned above, this new enlightenment should be developing a different model – one based on human-computer complementarity, which is a topic much in need of development. And as for causality, this too should be reconsidered, for people should not be regarded as machines, subject to cause and effect. Instead we need to be looking at meaning and purpose, and other aspects which define humans and which differentiate them from machines. There is evidently much to reformulate!
However, we live in challenging economic times, where budgets are tight, and there is little money to explore new topics. So in response to this constraint I ask: why not explore new topics through existing ones; specifically Global Systems Science? By expanding the scope of this existing FET Proactive topic it would be possible also to begin to develop several new areas: Time for Time, Art in ICT and FET Research, and Behavioural Agriculture, while at the same time developing the field of Global Systems Science, making it in effect, wider in scope, which is also an answer to the question posed in this consultation about whether the scope of Global Systems Science is too wide or too narrow – it is most definitely too narrow.
So, to conclude, it is without doubt Time for Time. But is also a time for a different approach to science through an expanded understanding of the scope of Global Systems Science. And it is time to move beyond the legacy of the Age of Enlightenment. It is time for a new renaissance, a new enlightenment, and this means that it is time for art, and it is time for behaviour, and much more.
It’s all about time!
And as a footnote, I here add, with the benefit of the passage of time, that the above shows just how much DG CONNECT, with their notions of creativity deficits, to be corrected through the non-creative ones (the technologists) collaborating with the creative ones (the artists), are, out-of-time.