In Real Time

We wish a safe journey home to our visitors from the coast who came here seeking refuge from the path of Dorian. No one in the world is more hospitable than our neighbors from the low country, and I’m confident that you found our mountain folk no less welcoming. Our hearts go out to everyone who suffered a loss in the storm.

Who didn’t spent at least some time watching the weather over the holiday weekend, or clicking on the spaghetti models on their computer, or checking the weather app on their phone? Big storms are big media events.

There’s no denying that technology has given us tools for providing life saving information like storm warnings and evacuation notices. That’s not what we’re here to discuss this week.

What troubles us is the ability of media through technology to tap into our voyeuristic instincts. Whenever an event provides sufficient drama, millions of people now watch it unfold in “real time.” If the event requires a bit of extra dramatization to capture more viewers, our information providers are adept at providing that as well.

Drama is addictive, and like any drug, it requires higher and higher doses to provide the same buzz. Witness the constant local, regional and national real time crime and misfortune reports that we barely notice unless the level of drama is high enough. To the normal challenges of daily life we now add a constant exposure to stress hormones injected by our habitual consumption of media.

For tens of thousands of years humans experienced the passage of time much differently than we do today, or perhaps more accurately, we passed through time in a different manner. Time was reckoned by seasons, the phases of the moon or the gradual movement of celestial bodies long before the calendar was invented.

The invention of clocks began the divorce proceedings between humanity and the natural world. The second hand was a tiny but powerful sword slicing away bits of time from our lives with death by a thousand cuts.

For all our ability to measure time in ever smaller increments, however, we seem to have lost time rather than gained it. The general consensus is that life is short and time moves ever more swiftly, and I’ll wager you that twelve moons of our ancestor’s time was considerably longer than our year divided into nanoseconds.

The problem with our obsession with “real time” events is that for everyone watching, those events aren’t real at all. Every advance in communication technology enables us to spend more time in virtual reality, and every advance in the science of marketing ensures that we do so. Our awareness of here and now is surrendered to outside influences, and we gradually lose the ability to host that awareness ourselves.

So let’s look back at the holiday weekend we enjoyed here in the mountains. Did you notice the clear blue skies? Did you enjoy the cool nights? Did you spend your time in the sunshine or in the virtual reality of tropical force winds and rain while you tweeted your thoughts and prayers and posted your concern online? Did your weekend pass by too quickly? I’ll bet you that the weekend was much longer for the people sitting in traffic on an evacuation route.

Civilization in the developed world bathes in stress hormones with a consciousness focused on real time events in virtual reality. We perceive time much differently than our ancestors. How this will change us is as unpredictable as the computer generated spaghetti models of a hurricane.

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