Inventing Time

  
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Today I want to talk about time, which is a subject I’m researching quite a lot these days. In particular I want to talk about two of the most-quoted lines in technology conversations that are about time.

The first one is Alan Kay’s, famous line: it is easier to invent the future than to predict it. Alan Kay is a famous computer scientist who was at PARC.

And the second line is from William Gibson, the pioneering cyberpunk science fiction writer, who is famous for the line: the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.

What I want to do in this episode is change your understanding of such lines from figurative to literal, where the idea of the future being invented is not in the sense of specific things or events “contained” by the future so to speak, or from the future and “contained” in the present, but time itself as something that is invented.

Let’s start with a few examples.

In the last few years I’ve experienced a few technologies from the unevenly distributed future, as I’m sure many of you working in technology have. And I want to talk about four in particular: riding in a Tesla, trying on an Oculus VR headset, making a cryptocurrency transaction, and trying on a Magic Leap AR headset.

So the interesting thing is, my reaction to these four experiences was different in each case.

On one end of the spectrum we have Magic Leap and crypto. Both of those things, when I tried them, they were interesting, exciting, and stimulating, it was fun to try these things. But neither felt like an inevitable part of the future, at least to me, so subjectively speaking they did not feel like an inevitable part of the future.

In terms of Alan Kay’s line, they were auditioning for the role of being part of the invented future, but they were not decisively part of it yet, at least as far as I’m concerned. And in terms of William Gibson’s line, they may or may not be part of the actual unevenly distributed future. They felt like they might equally well be part of a fork future we may not go down, like I imagine it felt to play a BetaMax tape when it was still a competitor to VHS back in the day. That’s an important idea to recognize, right, that there are technological options we discover, uncover, and develop, but don’t necessarily exercise, and go down the future they create.

The Oculus headset, now that felt a little more substantial, like it was definitely part of the future being invented, but not necessarily an actual piece of the unevenly distributed future that I was experiencing in the present. Something like it seems inevitable, it feels like it rhymes with something from the future, but perhaps what we will actually see in the future is not that exact kind of thing. You can think of it as the future in a beta-test form, or at least that’s what it felt like to me. So I’m emphasizing repeatedly the subjective aspect here because what we’re talking about here is a gut experience of the temporal quality of a technological experience. We’re not talking about rational assessments of future probabilities, we’re talking about how real a sense of time feels.

And finally, riding in a Tesla made the electric vehicle future seem utterly inevitable in a way that kinda killed the present for me. Suddenly I could no longer look at gasoline cars the same way. Driving in my own car felt different, like I was stuck in the past, waiting for the price of the future to come down to the point where I could afford to live in it. So a Tesla creates the future in the sense of both the Alan Kay and William Gibson quotes. It makes the future real in a deep way that is like making time itself real. And you know this because the feel of the present feels different, like you’re heading down a dead-end, a lame-duck future. You’ll have to either abandon it as soon as you can, or end up dying with it.

Stepping back, I think it is important to understand innovation as the process of literally inventing time itself. The mark of success is that the present starts to feel dead, like the past, and the beachhead of the future in the present, let’s call it a Gibsonian temporal colony, feels like a portal for getting back into the present. So it’s almost like there’s been a time shift and you’ve been shifted back into the past and you have to step through a portal to get back to the present. There is a sense of inevitability to your experience of the new technology, and a sense of derealization — things seeming not quite real — in your continued experience of existing incumbent technologies.

You have to get very sensitive to this feeling in your gut if you want to do good work in the world of technology, even though of course it can be very misleading. There is a chance that feeling in your gut, that deep down sense that this is the future being invented, that this is time that is more real than the time I’m living in, that can be misleading. It could be that you’re mistaken. So that’s why I again emphasize this is a subjective feeling. But I think it is a very reliable indicator. When you get that feeling, there is a much stronger chance that you’re going to be right than wrong.

So you have to get very sensitive to this feeling if you want to do good technology, whether as an engineer, an entrepreneur, an investor, or an early adopter making new culture with it. And this is not the same thing as feeling excited or stimulated by the future. It is not the same thing as logically and rationally concluding that a certain scenario is the most likely future, and investing in it. It’s a sort of all-in psychological investment of identity into a sense of time that feels more real than the one you’re in. It’s a sense of switching timelines.

And this feeling can be evoked by very mundane and unexciting things. It doesn’t have to be a big flash-bang feeling.

An example of this: when I first moved to the US, I used a microwave oven for the first time, since they were not yet popular in India. And an Indian friend of mine taught me the trick of microwaving papads, usually called papadums when you get then in restaurants in the US, which are these little dried lentil crackers you typically either deep fry or roast on an open flame. But the microwave cooked it perfectly, and that was the moment when it was suddenly clear to me that that was the future of the Indian kitchen. So that’s a pretty mundane example. It’s not like experiencing space travel or something science-fictiony like that. It’s a very mundane example of switching timelines and feeling that one kind of invented future involving a certain technology is more real than the time you’re experiencing right now.

Once you get sensitized to this feeling of going down one fork of time rather than another, and the idea of more or less real timelines, I think you’re psychologically equipped to be much smarter about how you relate to technology. You’re equipped to be bolder about how you engage with the future. So it’s a skill worth cultivating. In a way, it’s learning a kind of time travel within the present.

And learning time travel is probably figuratively the most important skill you can develop as a technologist. And I know it sounds weird, but this is the reason all of us in technology tend to love science fiction and sort of reach for ways of to think about experiencing time in much more real ways. We are actually training our gut, we’re training our sense of time being real or unreal, learning to make forks and sort of fork-switching decisions at the right time, and getting a sense of are we in the past, are we in the future, are we in the present, how do we get back into the present, how do we actually make part of the future more real and bring it into the present. So these are all sort of temporal mechanics skills that you learn once you start to cultivate this feeling.

So that’s my topic for the day, let me know what you think. We’re just at the 10 minute mark, so looks like I’m back to slightly shorter podcast lengths, and I’ll be back again next week or the week after with my next episode, thanks.