Thursday, February 16, 2006

Technological Acceleration and the Phenomenology of Time

This thought has occurred to me. Both time and space are relative. In theory space can be divided or multiplied infinitely as can time. In regards to space the human body, our atomic constituents, and our planet act as reference points; but in regards to the relativity of time it would seem that the only real reference point is the conscious experience of the passage of time. So the question is why does a second feel like a second instead of a thousand years? What is governing this phenomenological experience and can it be changed?

It would seem to me that the experience of time must have been conditioned by evolution to optimize us for survival. Some factors that may have played into this are the average speed of moving objects in the ancestral human environment such as falling objects, predators, and prey. The conscious experience of time would be an important component for the application of intelligent pattern recognition as it pertains to biological survival.

Throughout the history of the human species the operating environment has changed little until the advent of civilization several thousand years ago. However, since the advent of civilization humans have been using technology to alter their environments to better suit their needs. During the last century the rate at which the human operating environment has been altered due to technology has increased significantly because of the exponential nature of technological advancement.

This fact raises an important question in relation to the coming technological singularity. Note the diagram of the golden rectangle/spiral above. Let us assign a number to each square from largest to smallest. There are eleven squares visible. Now imagine that this spiral represents the passage of time from the big bang to the singularity. The first square would represent the eons of time that led up to the formation of planet earth and the last square would represent the singularity. Let's say that human civilization began in the sixth square and that the eighth square represents the twentyth century, and the ninth square represents the first quarter of the twenty first century. This is helpful in visualizing the kind of exponential change that we will face in the near future.

Now the reason for this exercise is to demonstrate that, in this model at least, at no point in history has any human being lived long enough to experience a new exponential unit (square). But presently any one who is currently alive is likely to experience a number of squares, and any one who lives to see the eleventh square (the singularity) will live to see a virtual infinity of squares.

My point is that the phenomenological experience of time as governed by our cognitive architecture is not prepared for this kind of change. And so I hypothesize that part of becoming post-human will be being able to alter our cognitive architecture so that the experience of time slows down considerably. We already know that the human mind is capable of this because of reports made by those who have used psychedelic drugs, gone into trances or deep meditational states, or who have had a near death experience.

Just imagine a world in which technology is accelerating at rates that are beyond imagination yet the people living in that world are experiencing a second as a thousand years.


Truly a romantic thought. It makes me want to do my best to ensure I live to see the next forty years.

Interestingly, your final paragraph sounds strikingly similar to Budhist spiritualism. Could it be that we're all talking about the same thing? William Blake describes it thus:

"To see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."

By Blogger yoda, at 16/2/06 04:16  

The perception of passage of time is something which I've thought about. About ten years ago I was watching a swallow catching insects above a muddy pond. Its manoevres were so quick and accurate that I wondered whether its perception of time was faster than mine. If I was moving that fast I would hardly have time to see anything - let alone something as small as an insect - before crashing into the ground.

What's governing the perception of time is the physical architecture of the brain. My brain and the brain of a swallow are made from the same units (neurons) which work on the same time scales. What's different are the structures and just the physical size of the brain. The speed at which a signal is propogated from one neuron to the next is governed by the physical length of the axon between them.

By Blogger Bob Mottram, at 16/2/06 04:57  

I once read a paper on cognition that described the situation an F15 fighter pilot goes through. In such a machine, speeds of upto 600 miles per hour (970 kph) are common while In a dogfight. The author indicated that the average human suffers cognitive overload. The paper then described how such pilots and members of the CIA are taught to "slow down" perception (I forget the technical term. Forgive me).

In such a state, a highly trained CIA agent could literally watch a bullet approach him in slow motion. He could then dodge it as easily as I could dodge falling kite (a la Neo in The Matrix). The author indicated that this is the same ability a pilot in a dogfight calls upon.

I'm not sure if this is the same as your illustration. You seemed to be saying that the speed of signal propogation differs depending on what organism the brain belongs to. If we assume the paper I described above is accurate, is it possible for an individual to consciously slow down time. Could it be that the singularity has already happend and that it's just not evenly distributed yet?

Finally, I'm slightly confused about the relation between time and the perception of time. Is there a difference? Does time change with our perception or is time simply our perception?

(I realize that my comments might sound rather naive. Feel free to point me to relevant literature so I can wrap my head around this stuff.)

By Blogger yoda, at 17/2/06 14:03  

Thanks for the comments Yoda. I really have no idea what the true nature of time is, or what the difference between chronological perception and reality might be. I realize that Einstien deals with this to some extent with the theory of special relativity but many questions remain unanswered. Science, until very recently, has not taken consciousness seriously. Spiritual traditions such as Buhdism and shamanism may know more about the phenomenology of time than present day science. What you said in the comment is very interesting. I was thinking that we have to physically alter our brains in some way, but perhaps we need only develop a certain kind of discipline similar to meditation that would allow us to slow the perception of time (and dodge bullets like Neo):D

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 17/2/06 15:06  

There is not space and time, just space-time, they are the same thing and they are, as we see them, an illusion.

We have an internal clock or perceptual frame rate that is controlled by a long loop of neurons in the brain, it can change it's circuit speed when we overheat during a fever. This is perceived time, rather than measured space-time the two are not the same. Perceived space is also subject to shifts and distortions, but how many of us can see with the eyes of a painter anyway, for many live in a world of symbols, not color and light.

Speaking of space-time, I think the location of the singularity is a more interesting point than the date. My guess is, somewhere on the north west side of the Pacific Ocean.

By Anonymous Daniel S. Matthews, at 17/2/06 20:02  

The last commentor is right in that space and time are just different views of the same object. We do have our own internal body cock for detection of circadian rhythms, but this is more to do with controlling release of horemones and other metabolic processes rather than actual perception of time. The body clock is based upon detection of ambient levels of light, and operates at an early stage in vision.

I very much doubt that "CIA man dodging a bullet" story, and suspect that it's just a piece of folklore. Nobody can dodge a bullet, no matter how much meditation they may have done beforehand.

The geographical location of the singularity I don't think is very important, because I don't think it will occur at a geographical location. I think it will occur on the internet.

By Blogger Bob Mottram, at 19/2/06 06:12  

The following is fact.

"We have an internal clock or perceptual frame rate that is controlled by a long loop of neurons in the brain, it can change it's circuit speed when we overheat during a fever."

If you can't find the papers on it yourself, let me know and I will dig it up for you.

By Anonymous, at 19/2/06 10:44  

dan, please provide a couple of links to the papers that you recommend. There's a lot of material online and it'd be nice to know what the best work is.

Bob, said "Nobody can dodge a bullet...."

I think we should be careful before we make such final declarations. Remember, we once all thought that the world was flat!

By Blogger yoda, at 20/2/06 20:00  

Dan sent me a couple of wonderful links to whitepapers on how the brain perceives time.

I'm eternally grateful to him. and the work being done on this blog. I feel like a tadpole that's just come out of the water and is finally learning the feel of land. I've got my work cut out for me. Here are the links Dan pointed me to:






By Blogger yoda, at 21/2/06 13:31  

Cool. Thanks Dan and yoda.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 21/2/06 15:00  

yoda said:

Bob, said "Nobody can dodge a bullet...."
I think we should be careful before we make such final declarations. Remember, we once all thought that the world was flat!

sorry yoda, but unlike the flat-earth belief which was based just on vulgar perception, the Bob's statement is based on hard facts like the speed of bullet, time to impact, distance at which one can notice the incoming bullet, brain reaction limits, time to send commands to and activate muscles, and time needed to move body off the bullet trajectory. remember, incoming bullets are often supersonic, so you don't get warned...

You compare all the above to the flat-earth belief ? sheesh... tell me, are you a real yoda ?

people do dodge bullets - I knew such a person myself - but! the existing training "to dodge a bullet" is not actually dodging the bullet, but developing ability to predict the moment when the opponent pulls the trigger - and dodge and attack at the exact moment.

look for what "the crease of a swordsman" is

By Anonymous Igor, at 28/2/06 01:00  

Yoda could probably dodge a bullet, or maybe deflect it with his lightsaber.

By Blogger Roland, at 9/3/06 19:49  

yoda: I'm sorry to say this, but scientificly, it does seem impossible to dodge a bullet. Unless you're expecting it, a bullet travels faster than sound(, so you can't dodge. However, if you're being shot from a distance, it's possible the bullet will slow down enough for sound to pass it.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 26/11/06 16:36  

I'm really interested in body clock phenomenon so it was useful for me:) Thanks

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