Time, Consciousness and Digital Technology

This posting might be taken as a sequel to the previous post on “the New Normal” (and this “New Normal” also being coincident with the Post-Modern Condition), where we will take a look into another and different aspect of this “New Normal” as befits what Gebser calls “the double-movement” or “the crisis of paradox” as Jacob Bronowski also calls it — that is to say, “chaotic transition”.

One of my Twitter contacts, @aaronzlewis, connected me this morning to a YouTube talk delivered by Venkatesh Rao on time and digital technology, and what digital tech is doing to our sense of time and our consciousness of time. The lecture is a very brief 15 minutes, but it does touch upon very important aspects of the New Normal/Post-Modern Condition and our present condition of “chaotic transition”.

One of the iconic thinkers and writers of the 70s period, besides those mentioned earlier, was Marshall McLuhan, whose musings on technology and media and how they effect our “sensorium” and consciousness were quite controversial. His thinking about that was captured in a simple statement: “the Medium is the Message” — that the medium itself constructs a hidden or unconsciousness environment or milieu that is often overlooked because we are too focussed on the content (the foreground effect) and not the form (the background effect). That is, in effect, a deficiency of what Gebser calls “the perspectival consciousness”.

McLuhan was also notable for describing media as “the extensions of man”, or what we might refer to as “projections”, which is also a theme taken up by Jungian theorist Robert Romanyshyn in his book Technology as Symptom & Dream. Digital technology, for example, is an emulation or “outering” of the form and function of the human nervous system, which does, in fact, operate on quantum or digital principles. So, our outward technologies often indicate a shift in emphasis on some aspect of the human form — from the mechanical aspects modeled in the Industrial Revolution to the electrical aspects now modeled or emulated in digital technology and referred to, sometimes, as also the “techtronic era”.

So, we might say that the locus of our consciousness is shifting from the mechanical or “clockwork” aspects of the human form to the electrical, which is implicated also in what we call “paradigm shift”, and this has, especially, certain implications for our legacy conceptions of “time” and human nature, and even “truth”.

This is what Rao is speaking to, here. And, as I’ve written earlier, we can’t really understand what is meant by “the post-modern condition” and the “end of the Master Narrative” unless we understand how this is connected with our changing sense of time and temporality and how this affects our consciousness structure.

There is a Marxian element to this, also, since Marx was quite famous for his interpretation of how revolutions in the “means of production” (media or technics or the “infrastructure”) also condition or affect our consciousness and the organisation of society (or the “superstructure” or “mode of production”).

The two books that spring to mind upon listening to Rao’s talk (besides, of course, Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin) are Aurobindo’s The Human Cycle and Ilya Prigogine’s Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. The former anticipated an “Age of Subjectivism” that is pretty much now reflected in that “stream of consciousness” sense of subjective time that Rao speaks to, which is quite chaotic as we see today. Prigogine, though, gives us a way to understand this chaotic sense of the subjectivisation of time and tempo as a transition to a new kind of order.

I was quite taken by the image Rao uses to conclude his talk about time and the stream of consciousness effect — the various streams and rivulets, somewhat tree-like. Cyberspace, or the “Global Brain”, can be likened to a sea that receives these many streams into itself — some sick, polluted, toxic, murky. It’s an apt metaphor and parallel for the Anthropocene, in fact — a rather uncanny correspondence or synchronicity between the subjective and the objective conditions and states. But these streams, as Rao hints at, are also different time-frames, quite different from the “hard synchronisations” of the past that were dictated by the mechanical clock. In consequence, you have pasts and futures all jumbled up and helter skelter in addition to a loss of discernment between inner and outer realities, or fantasy and reality. And there are some pretty strange creatures in the ocean of cyberspace.

That’s pretty much where Rao leaves off — how to safeguard this plurality and multiplicity or diversity without everything falling apart. That’s what Rosenstock-Huessy’s “metanomics” and Gebser’s “integral consciousness” are meant to answer.

This sea of cyberspace is an image of Jung’s “collective unconscious” made manifest. And oddly enough, this is how Nietzsche thought also of his “overman” — as a sea that could receive into itself also even the polluted streams of human history. In effect, that even describes not only Gebser’s “universal way of looking at things” but what Rosenstock-Huessy calls “universal history”, as accepting all of human history as being also our own autobiography.

In transitional ages, of course, time, and not space, becomes the outstanding factor and the essential problem. Rao, for example, speaks of the “hard synchronisations” of mechanical time (such as a factory) versus the “soft synchronisations” of what we might call electric time. In effect, what Rao calls “digital thinking” is not so much binary thinking but actually bears a close resemblance to “dialogical thinking”, and that is the “metanoia” or new thinking that is espoused by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, M. M. Bakhtin, and David Bohm — or, for that matter, Prigogine’s conception of science as a “dialogue with Nature”.

All the most interesting developments in new thought and logic have been dialogical, in fact — as distinct from dialectical, or binary, or even “digital”.

“Stream of consciousness” time is, of course, also closely associated with the return of the repressed, and this is what lends to cyberspace it’s uncanny resemblance to the Jungian collective unconscious, also made somewhat conspicuous by Rolf Jensen’s “The Dream Society” in which the universal “market” becomes quite identical with the collective unconscious. (There is, of course, a close association between Jensen’s “Dream Society” and Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland).

And, while we are at it and speaking of times past and times future as helter-skelter and all ajumble, we might give a mention to Jeremy Naydler’s The Future of the Ancient World, which is also associated with the return of the repressed or what Gebser called “irruption” of older elements of the psyche, or what is dream-like, and all this seems to make the stream of consciousness time flow seem very turbulent indeed — full of pools, rapids, eddies, undertows, or whatever forms streaming may take.

We speak of “the ocean of time”. But for Augustine, “time is of the soul”, so it is really the soul of which we speak when we speak of “ocean of time” in this sense, and that is closely linked to the “oceanic feeling” that psychoanalysts identified with the infant consciousness, for it is true that water — especially ocean or sea — has ever been a metaphor for the soul as well, and for the originary consciousness called “the archaic consciousness”. In Genesis, the Void and Water are the same, before God divides the waters above from the waters below (a trick somewhat replicated by Moses during the crossing of the Red Sea. Interestingly, Jesus does not divide the waters. He walks upon them. Narcissus, on the other hand, gets lost in them).

(Also interesting in relation to this is the legend that four mighty rivers fed the Garden of Eden — not without symbolic significance for Blake’s fourfold vision or the Upanishads‘ and Aurobindo’s “fourfold Atman”. “Streams of consciousness” may thus not be of infinite variety but flow in distinct and formal channels, forming an overall pattern or Gestalt we have not yet detected in our confusion, but one that may well gradually emerge amidst the chaos).

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