At the Gates of a Magical Garden

Digital Technologies and the Jumbling of Time
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In the sixth book of the Odyssey, the shipwrecked Odysseus washes ashore in Phaeacia, naked and exhausted. Directed by Nausicaa, the daughter of the king, he finds his way in the seventh book to her father’s palace, a magnificent structure with gold doors and bronze walls decorated with splendid tiles. A large orchard with a superabundance of fruits fronts the palace. Apples, pears, figs, olives, pomegranates, and grapes grow profusely, giving their bounty throughout the year, regardless of the season. In this wondrous garden, Odysseus sees clusters of grapes yet green, other grapes ripening on the vine, some drying in the sun, some being gathered, and others being crushed — all at once.

It is not just the magnificence of the palace that strikes Odysseus, it is also this disruption of the natural order of time, where past, present, and future — from green grapes to wine — are commingled. Phaeacia lies near the realm of the gods, and they have allowed some aspects of their world to seep into the garden.

Like Odysseus, we stand at the gates of a magical garden where the time of the gods, rather than that of mortals, holds sway. The magic that shapes our garden, however, comes not from the immortals, but from our own inventions. Modern technology is eroding the boundaries between past and present, reality and artifice, mind and body. Homer entered his garden through the grace of his Muse. We enter ours through our computers.

Consider another sinking ship — not Odysseus’, but the Titanic as portrayed in the 1997 movie. We witness the catastrophe as no human ordinarily could. A gigantic ship, one end high above the water, slides slowly but inexorably into the deep. People scurry in panic on the deck, while others inside frantically seek refuge among the flooding rooms. In one moment, we are on a deck tilted precariously above the ocean; then we are high above the ship looking down at the chaos on board; an instant later, we are inside a room where people are struggling to stay above the surging water. These are not moments of conventional time with one following another in sequence. Each is instead an aspect of an undivided wholeness in time and space, which only the gods — or those to whom they have given their sight — can see. Homer, using words alone, would have understood this synoptic perspective, if not the technologies that make it possible.

In dreams, time and space often reveal themselves in strange ways. And art, too, can create portals to imaginative worlds in which time flows in strange directions or skips and leaps about. But dreams end once we awake. When the story has been told or the book read, the magical time recedes and the ordinary time of our everyday lives returns. So it has always been.

Today, however, the boundary between the magic and the ordinary is becoming more permeable. Since the first movie theaters opened a century ago, we have been aware of the illusion — we have known that machines of sunshine splash images on a screen and fill the room with sound, although this conscious awareness fades when we immerse ourselves in a movie. Hidden from us, though, are the digital technologies that now create the unearthly view — the tools that produce the computer animations and graphics, the image enhancements, the blending of scenes, the integration of sounds. Together these digital technologies merge artifice and reality to transform time and space and move us into the realm of the gods. The movie becomes more engrossing and the artifice becomes ever more difficult to detect; if talk of new virtual reality technologies is to be believed, this trend will only continue.

Of course, it is not in the theater alone that time and space are transformed by digital technologies. Modern life increasingly depends on patterns of light and energy woven by billions of computers. Some sit on our desks or tag along in our briefcases. Others work in distant rooms, connected to us by wires or invisible signals through the air. Many have gone underground, disguised as cameras, phones, music players. Collectively their exchange of innumerable bits at unimaginable speeds continues on a far grander scale the ever-tighter integration of work and logistics begun by the railroad, the telegraph, and other nineteenth-century technologies.

As Wolfgang Schivelbusch has noted, the emergence of trains created magic tunnels through space: passengers entered one station and emerged in another far away, with only the dimmest sense of the space between. Older modes of transportation had been intimately connected to nature; for the traveler, the passage of time was inseparably linked to the space traversed. But passengers in speeding trains were disconnected from the land, their view framed by the windows of railway cars. As trains hurtled by, the rising and falling pitch of their whistles signaled the birth of a new geography, both physical and mental.

The twentieth century brought new technologies that changed the nature of our social relations. Once, when we left our hometowns, distance pushed our childhoods behind us, into the past. The telephone, the automobile, and air travel began to bind that past ever closer to us, making it possible to stay in contact with family and friends who might otherwise have faded from our lives. Today, with cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, video chatting, and social networking tools, we can maintain intimate connections without regard to intervening space. What once was past is now present.

And the present itself has been transformed as our communications technologies flood home and workplace with information, ideas, opinions, and beliefs. Unabetted by computers, we could not manage: We would attend at once to fewer duties, fewer undertakings, and fewer friends. But just as early trains brought distant towns into the consciousness of city dwellers, computers are drawing ever more of the once peripheral aspects of our lives into our present. We work with, seek advice from, and share secrets with people we may never see; although we may know only the slightest bit about them, they enter our present.

The future, too, is overtaking the present. A century ago, the distance that separated us from events pushed our knowledge of them into our future: we learned about them hours or days or even weeks after their occurrence. Now, with real-time reporting and high-speed video distribution, we are virtual participants in happenings around the globe.

In today’s machine-mediated time, the past and the future lay their claims upon the present; the near and the far are less and less meaningful; the jumbling of time and space once reserved for dreams or for art is our new norm. And simulation is gaining an ever more powerful hold on our imaginations. In creative hands, digital technology subtly blends the artificial and the real so that we can observe or participate in the false or impossible — that you are an omniscient witness of the sinking of the Titanic, that you are present at the birth of the universe, that you are inside a single cell, that you are fighting dragons in medieval Europe, or that as a blue squirrel, you are leading an otherwise normal life in another community. The falseness of digital technology may be used to convey truth, to educate, to foster imaginative thinking, to entertain, to comfort and support, or to provide escape.

The media critic Marshall McLuhan observed that a community responds to a new technology by absorbing new habits of perception that affect how that community’s members work and associate with one another. Many of us respond to the ubiquity of computers and communication devices much as the old vaudevillian who hustled from pole to pole, giving each just enough spin to keep a plate atop it from falling. While he was keeping one plate aloft, others teetered precariously. As he worked, his assistant added new poles and plates, so he performed most of his act on the dead run. We are also performers, giving to each aspect of our lives only enough spin to keep it going. But digital technology continues to frustrate us by expanding our present with more and more attractions and demands. We, too, have to run faster to keep up.

We need a new mental agility; old habits of thought simply won’t do. For some, the mental exertions of the modern age come with at least as much loss as gain. For many others, however, particularly those born with one foot already in the magical garden, the prospects are exhilarating; for them, the Internet is the substrate for innumerable social interactions, and we can only speculate about how their embrace of technology will further affect the ways in which they think, feel, and behave.

For example, in an expanded present, learning just enough and learning just in time may come to be more valued than deeply understanding a subject; the ability to read texts may become less important than the ability to “read” animations, visualizations, and simulations. When everyone is potentially a publisher and every publication is but a mouse click away, the conventional cartography of knowledge will have diminishing value. More valuable may be the ability to seek counsel in the wide and eclectic collection of variously qualified cyberspace sources and experts.

As the present becomes more crowded, the young among us — and those not yet born — will likely attend less to the past and future. Like the racing vaudevillian, they will attend more and more to the tasks and relationships in greatest need of immediate attention. Our collective sense of history could be a prominent casualty of our scramble to keep up with the demands of the present. When those early train travelers gained magical speed, they lost the connection with the land and villages along the route of travel. We see signs of something similar in the digital era, as the young arrive much faster — educationally, socially, economically — but with less and less understanding of how they got where they are. Historical time, for those now young and yet to be born, may not flow coherently. It may instead be like time in modern and postmodern literature: a patchwork just tenuously stitched to our present. This restructuring of time may profoundly shape the expectations of the young, and their patience for hard work in pursuit of achievable goals.

Standing at its gate, we have only a hazy view of the magical garden; what we now see in outline may not materialize. In any event, the garden will be the work of the young, and the ways in which they choose to cultivate it may be quite different from ours. Digital technology will change not only what they can do, it will change who they are. The young may acquire more than new mental abilities and facility with new tools; they may acquire a godlike equanimity to live in the expanding present. If the Muse were to give us a glimpse of their garden, we, like Odysseus in Phaeacia, would undoubtedly marvel beholding such a strange place in which to work and live — and yet, like Odysseus, might pass by the garden and wish we were home.

G. Anthony Gorry, "At the Gates of a Magical Garden," The New Atlantis, Number 24, Spring 2009, pp. 116-120.

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