The New (Imaginary) Now
“The imaginary universe is a place of astonishing richness and diversity: here are worlds created to satisfy an urgent desire for perfection, immaculate utopias such as Christianopolis or Victoria that hardly breathe; others, like Narnia or Wonderland, brought to life to find a home for magic, where the impossible does not clash with its surroundings; yet others, like Dream Kingdom, built to satisfy travellers bored with reality ….”
– Alberto Manguel, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places
Now was once an unconsidered state. It was undistinguished as air, valueless as belly lint. Now was whatever you were doing at the moment, whatever was happening around you or somewhere else at a given instant. It was an adverb, not a place like Cleveland.
Then came the apps of a new meta-Now: Dogpile, MetaCrawlerWeb, and mama; Instagram, Foursquare, Twitter, Hashable, Glancee, Banjo, Intro, Sonar, Kismet, and Mingle; LinkedIn and Facebook. Behind these came the huge engine of Big Data, for whom Now is the ultimate business prize.
Now presently races by us so quickly it replaces the recognition of past and present with a faultless steady state: the sovereign state of new-Now. Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew cites a ‘network effect’: “Once you reach a critical mass in your network of friends, you begin to text them all the time, and they expect you’ll do that, and you expect them to do it.” (Pew reports teens send 60 texts a day.) In this imaginary place Now is evergreen, perpetually supplanted by more and more Nowness ad infinitum. As we point, tap and scroll through this imaginary place, part Truman Show, part Panopticon, we change time itself, or more precisely change our notion of time. The past is anything that is not-Now, a second-place place because it is, by definition, out of the loop of Nowness. Not that the past doesn’t exist but it is not here in the Now, which in its seamless breadth has no offstage. Now is always-on.
DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM
Leaping into Now-streams with the abandon of cliff divers, we go with the flow of countless tributaries of consciousness—a billion tweets a week and rising. We seemingly cannot resist the Now undertow. Digital Natives switch their attention between media platforms (TVs, magazines, tablets, smartphones or channels within platforms) 27 times per hour, about every other minute. Our descent is instant, constant, seamless. In the Erehwon of Now, we realize, there are no boundaries; this new reality is edgeless as an egg.
Curiously Now is often divorced from here. Now is only here inside the imaginary mirror world of Now. You are not here with your Facebook friend sunning in Acapulco or here with the Pottermore #storytelling friends on Twitter but you are in the new (imaginary) Now with them. This is possible because Now is an emergent state resulting from being so thoroughly deviced. Shipments of smart devices will surpass 1.1 billion this year and by 2016 more than 1.84 billion devices will ship—doubling the 2011 number and showing a 15.4 percent compound annual growth rate over the next five years. Now knows no boundaries.
Know and now, seemingly linguistically close, could not be farther apart. Now is too big to know. Any careful watch of Now dies quickly of nervous exhaustion; luckily it is an imaginary expiration. But, as V.S. Ramachandran reminds us, phantoms in the brain can be as real as knives. These phantoms fuel the current debate over how we deplete ourselves (especially our brains) trying to replace human interaction with a descent into Now.
Imagine walking on a Saturday and saying, “I’m here on a side street in Then, it’s high time to hail a cab to Now.” That Now was unthinkable for most of human history. But today Now is a destination of connected intelligence. Deftly manipulating our devices, we plug into an endless number of simultaneous, recursive Nows. We daisy-chain reality—a reality that is a useful mirror, an emergent reflection. Here in Nowistan a new language is springing up (pedtextrian) and new behaviors are emerging (continuous partial attention); citizen heroes appear, affecting our understanding and experience of Nowness (the 18-year-old Tetris Grand Master who gives us seven valuable life lessons). A chief characteristic of Now is that once you enter this realm, it becomes tricky to leave. You want to know more about New-Now, you want to keep exploring the terrain and hearing about and commenting on and getting moment-to-moment updates on Nowness itself.
NOW AS REAL-TIME
The changed state of Now is expressed in the phrase “real-time” which means not only ‘in the present instant’; the implication is that any other time frame is not real. Now has become a business strategy, as Big Data enables making “real-time” decisions:
► IBM estimates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day from a variety of sources including sensors, social media, and billions of mobile devices around the world, making it difficult for businesses to navigate and analyze it to improve competitiveness, efficiency, and profitability.
► IDC estimates the market for big data technology and services will grow at an annual rate of nearly 40 percent to reach $16.9 billion by 2015.
► TheWeb-tracking firm Chitika has a site that offers a practically constant view of the smartphone market in near real-time.
► IBM recently acquired Vivisimo, a software that excels in capturing and delivering ‘quality information’ across a broad range of data sources, no matter the format, or where the data resides. Vivisimo software automates the discovery of data and helps employees navigate it with a single view across an enterprise, “providing valuable insights that drive better decision-making for solving all operational challenges.”
► Charles Duhigg reported in the New York Times that marketers at Target asked one of Target’s dozens of data analysts, “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?” The answer was yes. Duhigg writes: “The marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing.”
► RANDA Solutions, a software firm serving the educational sector, recently announced a Big Data Project for K-12 Education. RANDA’s vision: “We want all the data to be part of the intelligence that informs the teacher immediately—when they need it most.”
THE NOW QUANDARY
Now is not a place to visit or a third place like Starbucks; it is the only place. Now has supplanted national places or local places. Seeing this vast connected stream of newness that is ever-updating itself, protean in its methods of changing into new moments, supplanting those moments with newer moments like time itself, we face a curious, previously unthinkable perplexity: how do I get out of Now? Where do I go?
Here we run headlong into the ultimate Now paradox: we have simultaneously compacted Now to a screen or pad and expanded it to universal connected intelligence.
This is a thoroughly new quandary worthy of careful consideration. We quickly see this new place in terms of values that are sustained or eroded. Peggy Noonan worries that the new Now is filled with more disturbing actions and stories than ever before; that Now is a kind of Roman Circus, a Fellini forum where the good, bad, and the ugly parade and share each other’s masks:
In isolation, these stories may sound like the usual sins and scandals, but in the aggregate they seem like something more disturbing, more laden with implication, don’t they? And again, these are only from the past week. The leveling or deterioration of public behavior has got to be worrying people who have enough years on them to judge with some perspective.
Something seems to be going terribly wrong.
It isn’t simply that our values are eroding. Those values were written down in books and books were deemed holy, and thereby encoded in the culture and in individuals through the dissemination and repetition of those values. Whether absolutely right or wrong or in-between, those values became generally accepted and so cultural institutions were built upon them. What is happening here is not that cultural values are eroding; those values are challenged, in some cases exploded, because we have moved from the world built upon the book that enabled states and nations—to a stateless state of Now. With instantly updatable tools in the hands of billions across nations and states the values of Now suddenly become instantaneousness, immediacy, a(ny) reaction in the present.
Decrying the decline of values, even with good reason, not only misses the point, it confounds the real issue. We are seeing the world differently and this seeing changes what we value. This is not a moral issue solely because, as Dr. John Medina reminds us, it begins as brain rules: vision trumps all other senses, we don’t pay attention to boring things.
In January 1855, Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine published “A London Fog”:
“To walk at this time in the English capital, is absolutely to plunge yourself into a soup of yellow peas, ready to be placed over the fire…. The entire city appears covered with a vaporous tent, beneath which one hears the confused noise of invisible beings…. On a foggy day the laws of optics are reversed. Through a sort of mirage, objects assume gigantic proportions; a dog has the appearance of an elephant, a gas-pillar that of a pyramid; houses acquire strange perspectives, the length of streets becomes a mystery, and their names, hieroglyphics lost in the night of time.”
In order to avoid seeing elephants for dogs, we must recognize the fog that settles in this imaginary place. That is the weather here. It demands new optics. We may even come to see that only our faith and belief in this imaginary Now makes it real. Then we can smile and say we imagined this “Dream Kingdom, built to satisfy travellers bored with reality.”
Will the Dream Kingdom, the Imaginary Now become our new reality? It is already. We imagined this Now and we use what we imagined. That is what we do with our tools.
Too Big To Know See David Weinberger’s discussion of “the shift from the old private-then-public publishing model to a continuous now….”, p. 140.
You might not be a journalist, but you play one on Twitter Adrienne France writes: “Metzgar and Ibold find the most prevalent journalistic mode among their politically-oriented sample is assertion, which Kovach and Rosenstiel characterize as placing the ‘highest value on immediacy and volume and in so doing tends to become a passive conduit of information.’”
Yesterday The Boston Globe ended all your tomorrows Charles Mansbach, page 1 editor of The Boston Globe: “The reason for the change is that articles are no longer written only for the newspaper. Breaking news is posted immediately on the Globe’s websites; stories are then fleshed out, posted again, then put into the process for the next day’s paper and the next day’s web entries. With all that traffic, a reliance on ‘yesterday,’ ‘today,’ and ‘tomorrow’ is an invitation for error.”
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