People often talk about the fact that we live in a “cult of now”, that is that we live in a world where we are being constantly bombarded with what our social circle is doing this very moment, it also is a world in which news events are often live streamed, in short, a world where the present is prioritised. While this is true, it needs to be taken further and understood as a shift of resources from the past to the present, and a denial of resources to the future. Time invested in the portrayal of the present is at the expense of the past and future. We have become obsessed with the present in equal measure to what we have lost from the past.
The preoccupation with the now has also led to a situation where the future is sacrificed for the present in a similar way to the past is being forgotten. The future is not being considered just as the past is being lost or disregarded. New technology is fundamentally altering the perception of time. People are living in a perpetual state of now, unable to appreciate the past and too busy to plan the future. One example of the diminishing place of the future in society is the observation that no new major political theories have emerged since the various forms of Marxism. At the turn of the 20th century, there were many social theories put forth, all with their emphasis on the future, Marxists, socialists, neo-liberals and anarchist movements sprung up all over the world in various forms and with utterly contrasting agendas, but one thing that did unite them, broadly speaking, was their concern for a better future. These ideas and political theories were entirely future orientated. But these theories are now increasingly part of the past, because there have been no radically new social theories to emerged in the past fifty years. What has instead emerged during this time is a technology aided cult of the present. This could be one of the reasons as to why lately there has been a dearth of genuinely new political movements which seek to fundamentally alter the organisation of society. In a world where most people live their lives saturated in the present, there is little desire to form the future.
The present is now all that there is. The past and future are but shadows of the present. The past is to be considered only through the lens of the present with its accompanying moral systems and the result of this is nearly always that the past is inferior, a time of mistakes that we in the present have now fixed, and with this line of thinking it quickly becomes apparent that the past is something not worthy of study or consideration because it seen as a kind of “bad dream” which we want to wake from by returning to the present. In our current society, the past is viewed as a “lesser present”, and not something that is worthy of serious consideration.
This increasing preoccupation with the present will ultimately be detrimental to humans because living solely in the present moment is a hallmark of a lower animal nature, a dog has little else driving it other than interest in the now, it is beholden to needs and desires of the present. In such an animal, the faculty of remembrance is not developed and apart from its near future needs, the dog has little concern for the future. Whereas one of the reasons that humans have achieved so much is that we have the ability to suspend that desire for instant gratification and do things on the basis of their future worth. For example, we build infrastructure because it will one day be valuable, we invest in education because of its future benefits. We also possess the ability to analyse the past and use it to inform and shape our future. Humans are now too preoccupied with the present that they are forgetting the past and not concerned for the future.
Furthermore, during intense feelings of fear, humans become concerned only for the present. We can see that this preoccupation with the present is what we share with animals, and when we are in terrorised. Also, when people are depressed, a symptom that is felt is that the future seems utterly inconsequential, there is a preoccupation with the present moment and the feelings experienced by the sufferer now. The depressed person usually can’t fully appreciate that their future state may be better, they can hear appeals like “it will pass” but ultimately the experience is so present-bound that such statements often have little effect. They cannot escape the pain of the present, so have a hard time considering their future. Similar can be said about the view of the past, the past is often seen as irrelevant, or is in fact seen as the cause of their depression. The past is seen either as irrelevant, or is viewed negatively. In both cases the present usually takes precedence in the mind of the sufferer. These three examples show the danger of living solely in the present. Human society is rapidly moving in this direction, a fixation with the present is now being felt in the society at large and is no longer just the domain of the sick or scared individual.
New communication technology has served as a catalyst for this remarkable shift in human consciousness. In the past, people preserved their present knowledge in the form of books, but this was not present-bound, but actually done more to transfer that knowledge to the future. A book is somewhat like a fragment of a historical present that is made accessible to the future. Through a book, the author's present can be accessed by the future reader. This means that the primary purpose of a book is not the affirmation of present of the author but rather the preservation of the present for the future reader. This process happens less and less now when communicating, the emphasis of communication now is the affirmation of the present. Its value exists only now, the longer time passes, the less valuable it is. But the primary value of a book is its value to a future reader. In oral traditions, the primary value is in the past, it is the preservation of the past (through songs, epic poems etc.) for the present. With each new communication technology, the nature of time has been altered. In Western society, before the advent of the printed book in the 1400s, the primary means of communication was oral, the songs, stories and heroic legends that were told be travelling bards formed the main conduits of mass information distribution. This oral system took past events, and delivered them to the masses in the immediate present directly to people in person. So we have the origins in the past, being transmitted to the present. Then with the printed book, there was a way of writing and recording the present which could be communicated far into the future. The primary reason for the production of books is to communicate with a future audience. For the first time, an author could by means of preserving knowledge in a book, communicate out of their time, or beyond their time. Now, the situation has shifted once again. Our new technology systems such as the internet and smartphones have created a situation where the obstacle of time has been rendered obsolete, leaving us with a timelessness, that is an eternal present. We no longer communicate the past to our present selves, and we no longer have to communicate with the future, because our future audience is already here, it has been brought forward. Communication is now, for the first time in human history, instantaneous, and so we have rendered past and future meaningless.
We now communicate directly within the present, and we are surrounded only by the present in our lives.
Time can no longer be seen as a linear progression of three states; past, present and future. But can only be understood as a “lateral” present. We now don’t communicate from the past, and we don’t communicate with the future. All communication is now done in the present, about the present, and for a present audience.
Would love to hear your thoughts on these preliminary musings! Please feel free to comment…