Time After Time

Chronological sorting is algorithmic too

Two candlelit faces look at me over bowls of pulpy tomatoes and pepper-flecked soups. They both look a certain kind of rich, the kind that unashamedly buys $180 “wellness products” from Goop. It’s nighttime in this picture, but a flick of the thumb reverts me back to day: a buttery white room bleached by sunlight, an aerial view of a flat white, some hard-to-source magazines. Flick further still and I’m back to nighttime — Saturday night, in fact — at a Brooklyn basement poetry reading, where a fledgling poet silently spills words to an unseen audience.

On our social media feeds we slip, frictionless, through time. Saturday is next to Tuesday is next to #tbt 2014. Where once chronology was king, now our feeds are mostly algorithmic timelines. Determined by prior clicks and likes, eager-to-please strings of code create custom feeds based on our preferences. It’s a boon for social media companies: We stick around longer on algorithmic timelines, engaging with more content and encountering more revenue-generating ads. Many users, however, claim to hate it.

Our attention, understood as a scarce commodity, is steered through small tweaks to our timeline

On Twitter, which moved over from chronology to algo-time last year, a process of collective mourning began under the hashtag #RIPTwitter. Only marginally less end-of-days, one TechCrunch author declared Instagram’s algorithmic feed to be “the worst thing to happen to me all summer.” Reasons for vitriol were varied, from the pragmatic to the abstract. Some users felt that the loss of temporal ordering also meant a loss of personal control. As actor Rob Lowe tweeted, “One of the great rewards of being an adult is deciding ON YOUR OWN who (and what) you should be interested in.” “No revisionist history for me,” another user tweeted, suggesting a concern for digital memory. Events and live-tweets would become harder to follow; the spontaneity of random, seemingly uncalculated juxtaposition would be lost. The anger was often tinted by nostalgia: Users begged for the old ways to remain, seemingly at a loss to imagine a world without the reassuring comfort of chronologically organized data.

Some of the antipathy toward algo-time seems justified. Where the algorithm organizing a chronological feed is simple, transparent, and understandable, algo-time is opaque and mysterious. Such opacity makes algo-time wide open to manipulation by platform providers. Our attention, understood as a scarce commodity, is steered through small tweaks to our timelines. The algorithmic shuffle is designed for “stickiness,” an oddly carnal corporate buzzword describing the likelihood that users will linger on a platform, and return as frequently as possible. Pushing the best stuff to the top — as any journalist struggling with a lede paragraph will tell you — increases stickiness. So too does an endless scroll: A chronological timeline meant that, if you last checked your feed three hours ago, when you next opened it you’d have three hours’ worth of content waiting for you. An algorithmic timeline suggests there is no limit to how much you can and should consume in three hours; you can get as just as much as you want as long as you keep refreshing. If chronological time imposes a sense of the “natural” amount of content for a given time frame, algo-time eliminates noise so that you can gorge on signal.

When we stick to a platform, we will — or so platform providers hope — stay for the sponsored content, which in turn increases the platform’s profitability. Opaque or otherwise, in this sense the algorithm’s overall agenda is entirely predictable.

Chronology, by contrast, reflected a more familiar order of things. Seductively simple, rational. It’s old Father Time, Saturn, El, Cronus, bearded and smiling, benevolently keeping watch. Like a Werther’s Original grandpa, he guides us gently by the hand away from the past and into the future. “Keep moving forward,” he whispers, echoed by a Greek chorus of life coaches and self-help gurus. Chronology allows us to feel a sense of control over time: The past is just history, a story we tell ourselves. Stop living in the past; just let it go! The only bearable kind of present, we’re assured, is one in which we recognize that the past is behind us.

But it’s better we keep our guard up when it comes to time. We should bear in mind that Cronus, often understood as time’s personification, brutally cannibalized his own sons. He castrated and then deposed his own father, Uranus. He carries a scythe everywhere. Chronology takes liberties with the past, present and future, and leads only to death.

The myth of progress has made the urgent issues of social injustice, inequality, and climate change problems that future generations will automatically sort out. The progress narrative means we may not even notice we’re bleeding

Chronology, like any other algorithm, is a mathematical abstraction, a set of rules for ordering data. It’s also a lazy algorithm, based entirely on an inherited shared belief system about the way time moves — progressing from past, to present, to future. For most of us, our lived experience of time is more a jumbled rat king of divergent thoughts and conflicting rhythms. More closely related to memory, lived time is therefore open to manipulation through factors including drugs, illness, or intense bursts of emotion. This is why it can feel like only yesterday that Beanie Babies were a veritable cultural phenomenon, but you have no idea what you had for breakfast this morning.

Nor should we assume that linear time is any more neutral than algorithmic-time. Sure, algo-time is a cynical adjustment by social media platforms, prioritizing the pursuit of profit over the demands of its users. But let’s not kid ourselves: linear time has no less served these exact same purposes. Time’s arrow has provided vital bedrock for the formation of contemporary capitalism.

Chronological time relegates the past to an increasingly remote distance from our present. It creates a feeling of scarcity, where the past, once lost, is lost forever. Such scarcity contributes to the capitalist commodification of time, in which time — through waged labour — is reified as a measurable unit, synonymous with its monetary value. If run out of time, we might pay someone to cook or clean or walk the dog on our behalf. Time is money, which can be invested, lost, or worst of all, wasted.

Linear time also suggests progress, a sense that the winds of history are inevitably hurtling us along the timeline from point A to point B, in which the B stands for “best of all possible worlds.” On the surface, it sounds nice. Why not advocate for a teleological view of history in which the world can become better, for everyone, all the time? Hegel, for his part, agreed: “The History of the world,” he wrote in his Philosophy of History, “is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom.”

But Hegel’s story, as postcolonial theorists (among many others) have been at pains to point out, is infested with problems. Time as progress is a baggage-laden inheritance from the Great European Men of the 19th century — Hegel, Marx, and Darwin. It’s little surprise, then, that their theories can carry a cost for many outside that demographic. Take, for instance, Hegel’s spatial mapping, in which he attempts to apply his theory of progress to geographical locations. In first place, sitting closest to point B — or what Hegel describes as a state of Absolute Knowing — was America. Only a little behind was Germany, influenced as it was by Christian values. Africa, meanwhile, was “no historical part of the world.” And he wasn’t alone: Kant, Locke, and countless other white Western philosophers and thinkers, all claimed that Africa was in some way ahistorical. As postcolonial scholar Achille Mbembe writes in On the Postcolony, the “narrative about Africa is always a pretext for a comment about something else, some other place, some other people … Africa is the mediation that enables the West to accede to its own subconscious.” In other words, it was only through these constructed ideas about “Africa” that the West could sketch out its timeline: a point B was unthinkable without artificially constructing a point A to lend a veneer of moral respectability to the brutality, violence, and theft that go hand in hand with colonial projects. Cognitive gymnastics like Hegel’s were why America could be simultaneously hailed as the Land of the Free while its economic infrastructure was built on chattel slavery.

Darwin’s theory of evolution paved the way for what was to become evolutionary psychology — a pseudoscience with adherents like recently fired Google engineer James Damore, whose 10-page anti-diversity memo claimed that women were not biologically equipped for tech work. Evolutionary psychology is rooted in Darwin’s texts that conceptualize linear time biologically, based on the reproduction of offspring and the imagined innate passivity of women.

We are right to refuse social media’s monopoly and ask who benefits when a timeline is adjusted. But are there other, new algorithms for time that we can develop ourselves?

This understanding of linear time is not some specifically 19th century phenomenon. When, in 1992, neoliberal economist Francis Fukuyama announced the “end of history,” it sounded like an ode to Hegelian progress. The collapse of the Iron Curtain and, with it, Sovietism ended the global ideological binary, and neoliberalism was heralded as the timeline’s telos. Even for those who still believe in progress, we’re left with a shriveled and utterly useless passivity: The myth of progress has made the urgent issues of social injustice, inequality, and climate change problems that future generations will automatically sort out, minimizing the need for present action to mere perseverance. But not only are issues not solving themselves, the progress that has been made is now, in some cases, being reversed. Sometimes the arrow can turn back on us, cutting us deep, but the progress narrative means we may not even notice that we’re bleeding. “The slow cancellation of the future,” wrote Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life, “has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations.” It’s a miserable thought. In the face of a cancelled future, the only practical response to “what is to be done?” is to shrug your shoulders.

Linear time is an algorithm that has become so incontrovertible, so deeply foundational to our worldview, that it’s almost impossible to conceive of time any other way. It is unlikely that Facebook or Twitter or any other platform will change this with an algorithmic timeline, despite the concentration of power these platforms have. However, social media feeds do show that there are other ways of organizing temporal events. We are right to refuse social media’s monopoly and ask who benefits when a timeline is adjusted. But are there other, new algorithms for time that we can develop ourselves?

New temporal algorithms (algo-rhythms?) have been invented before. During the French Revolution, a new decimal calendar was introduced, stripped of all royal and religious references, It was in place for 12 years, until Napoléon abolished it in 1806. Or, take the recent rise of astrology, a vast cosmological system based on alternative temporal thought. Moving cyclically through space, planets always return to where they once began — there is no A to B movement, no linear progress. The appeal of astrology — particularly among queer and feminist communities —testifies to the desire for new ways of thinking about time, beyond those that have damaged us in the past. As queer feminist astrologer Chani Nicholas puts it, it’s in astrology “we see a clear reflection of ourselves.”

Perhaps time can be considered as protean lines of flight, mutant futures up for constant renegotiation. Or uncommodified, irregular, and co-existing alter-rhythms. Or time reconfigured as slime mold — “queer critters,” to borrow from Karen Barad — defying both taxonomy and the limits of “human nature.”  We need models of both human and environmental care; it’s crucial to think along with other kinds of planetary timescales, especially given the urgency of climate change.

We should work to reconfigure any temporal algorithm that opaquely shapes what we see for corporate ends — whether this is chronological time or the proprietary timeframes of Silicon Valley — should be contested. What we need is a diversity of algorithms and the power to shape them. If we acknowledge that the future isn’t some fixed and irrefutable point on a timeline but an exercise in collective imagination, perhaps we could begin to escape the ennui that defines our moment. The old future — the arrow’s point — might be cancelled at last.

Siobhan Leddy is a freelance writer and editor living in Berlin