On Nowness and Collective Memory

“It is obvious to everybody that the phenomena of the world are evidently irreversible. I mean things happen that do not happen the other way. You drop a cup and it breaks, and you can sit there a long time waiting for the pieces to come together and jump back into your hand. If you watch the waves of the sea breaking, you can stand there and wait for the great moment when the foam collects together, rises up out of the sea, and falls back farther out from the shore — it would be very pretty!” - Richard Feynman

We all have an immediate, almost visceral understanding of the distinction between the past and the future, even from our most mundane experiences. We learn from the past, and we plan for the future. We celebrate, we commemorate, we mourn, and we hope. Yet, as Feynman notes no one would wait very long for a broken cup to come back together.

Although we so clearly understand the distinction between past and future so many of us spend surprisingly little time thinking about the present - the way we cultivate it and the way we become inspired by it. The more we think about it the more surprising this is, since there’s really no period quite so long as right now.

More than anything else this is because now is such a slippery concept in the first place. On the one hand, there is a standard notion of nowness we’re all naturally in tune with as we check our calendars, our watches, and our phones. On the other, there’s the time we truly experience. In ancient Greek, the distinction between kronos (chronological, measured time) and kairos (qualitative, lived time) helped us better understand this distinction. In Sanskrit, ritu played a key cultural (and often spiritual) role in marking meaningful moments of change.

In the current day, especially in light of the pandemic, our attention has slowly returned to the concept of lived time as a subject of analysis. As we all experienced time dilation together, it became more relevant, and in some ways easier for us to pinpoint just how much of an impact new experiences (and hence new memories) can have on our ability to move from one moment to the next.

Rhythm, Ritual, and Collective Memory

In every era the way we collectively interpret time comes with social attachments. It helps shape the sense of life and ripeness evoked by new experiences, but more importantly it changes the way that we interact with the punctuation in our lives that permeates our daily rituals and guides our ability to recollect our collective memory.

Rituals are intentional, repeated moments with others or even with ourselves, which somehow, incredibly, collapse many nows into one. They simultaneously return us to the past and prepare us to the future, they bring us into the moment, and deeply cleanse our spirits. But the types of rituals we take part in have changed extensively over time, with the rise and fall of various social, political, and ecclesiastic traditions, and perhaps most importantly with the rise of new technologies.

These concepts aren’t entirely new. The ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, anthropologist Victor Turner, and even the psychologist Carl Jung all explored the liminal spaces, the transitory moments where changes in rituals and customs have occurred. Today, people might like to call these moments vibe shifts. But with the ever increasing pace of technology, these shifts are occurring faster than ever. With the introduction of the printing press, we moved from spoken words held in memory to books as the main store of human knowledge, and now we’ve moved from books (representations of spoken word) to search (catalogues of all kinds of “books”) to entirely algorithmic forms of information like GPT-3 (entirely distinct recombinations of related information).

In his retracing this evolution, Geoffrey Nunberg describes our modern view of information as “what happens when you take a book and shake it by the spine so hard that all the words fall out”. Technology has tremendous potential to connect us, but in the process it might also erode any sense of cohesive truth or narrative as we enter words and it gives back bits. As Marshall McLuhan perhaps most famously noted, computers, connected via the internet, have further complicated the way we remember and the way we flow through time creating a world where we’re constantly bouncing between algorithmically generated and distributed narratives that lack the same cohesive auras as those that we might have previously imagined together.

It’s no surprise then that the idea of lore has resurfaced. But perhaps the most important questions remain unasked: namely, what preventative actions can we take to collectively maintain it?

There are many answers to this question, and I’m not even certain there’s a right one, but I am also out of time. It certainly feels like we need new forms of ritual that we can enact together to draw ourselves back to intentionality; to regain a sense of focus and in turn a sense of true belonging. We have to use technology as a convivial tool, one that acts in concert with us rather than asking us to discretize our sense of collective memory and erode our sense of collective self.

Most of this work can’t be done in writing. Rituals of a kind can be performed between a writer and an audience, but the most important rituals have to be done together.

Thanks as always to Andy Tudhope, David Phelps, and Vivek Singh for graciously reviewing this draft. Please note, this draft will likely change over time as I update my thinking and continue to add more depth and context. Feel free to check back soon!

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