The time builds the culture

The time is our greatest cultural question. Not only in the sense that culture needs time and attention – and that our society has become so rich in information that we, as in Herbert Simon’s observation, have become impoverished of attention, and culture requires a particularly pure form of attention – but also in several other respects.

Let us look at the attention challenge first. Our limited capacity for attention requires that we consider what we should pay attention to. We have to decide what to read, what we want to hear and how we want to take part in the culture. We must have the keys to allocate attention in some way. We already use some such keys – leaderboards, perhaps criticism in the newspapers or algorithmic recommendations of various kinds – but the less time we have, the more important become these keys for the allocation of attention. A cannon, a common cultural tradition, an educational ideal – they would all be such keys. Without them, attention would be dissipated and, even if the quality of the culture we imbibe could not be lower, the total of this attention doesn’t become the common culture, which is essential for a society to have both a past and be able to shape its future. This does not mean we should have regimentation, but, without a core culture, the network of associations becomes ever thinner – and then nothing new can really establish itself either. For the new online cultural expressions to be able to grow into the common fabric, the fabric must be sufficiently strong.

Time is also a challenge because it requires that we preserve our culture. Time is a constant selection pressure on the created commons. Some can be saved, some disappears – and what survives this evolutionary process evolves, mutates and gives rise to new cultural threads. This selection pressure is changing now in two ways: one the one hand, it’s becoming easier, because we feel that we can save everything, and on the other hand, it’s becoming more random as it is soon digitally stored and then it suffers from decay and disappears into a sort of digital amnesia. We are combining the illusion that everything can be saved with what we know about the fragility of digital storage methods, and we see a catastrophe on the horizon, where we have not actively chosen to save what we value, but have tried to save everything. The selection will then be made for us by technical incompetence and fragility. The archive we leave, the library that survives, those collections and selections that remain will be curated by chance and not by an expression of our own time’s arduous effort to choose and evaluate. An information society characterised by arbitrary amnesia.

Even in the creative process, time has a new role. It takes less time to create, since the tools we build with have become much more powerful. Today, creation takes place at a pace never before seen – the creation rate expressed as bits per hour has never been as high as it is today. The boundaries between private and public creation have been wiped out, and often the private can be as beautiful as the public in this new flora. We can create fast – but how do we decide what we should create when we can create so much? At what rate do we create the best, if the friction between the idea and its creation is eliminated by our new tools; if the cost of creating and the mechanical barriers are slowly being broken down?

The question of time is also a question of how we measure it. How long is the future? How deep is the past? How broad is a moment? Our time – where is it and how it is formed? How do we measure it? In what size fragments are we able to achieve the concentration that the culture may require? The duration and intensity of attention determines the limits of the possible works and the questions that culture can ask us. Time demands that we shape a cultural mereologi – a doctrine of wholes and parts, about how we divide and understand culture in chunks.

Time raises questions about choices and selections, about attention and memory – it demands that we recognise that culture has its own, often different rhythm than the society by which, for the moment, it is characterised. Time allows certain expressions and prevents others. In time, we make culture itself an expression of the culture of our time, and it is not so simple to say that we are in a hurry or in haste, not at all. All civilisations have sometimes felt the whip of stress and we are not unique in that. Therefore, it is important not to confuse the time with technology. Technology is important in all this, but it is not in itself a cultural issue. Technology shifts and changes the time in different ways, and that is why we need to think more about it. The time builds the culture, nourishes it and develops it, and we need to devote to the issue of time and culture more… time.

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