Time and Communication

Kristóf Nyíri

Abstract


Wittgenstein liked to quote Augustine as saying: "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not" (Confessions, Book XI, Ch. 14, transl. Edward Bouverie Pusey). Time is so obviously a social construct; but again so impossible to conceive of in other than absolute terms. Reviewing the vast array of philosophical reflections on the topic from Aristotle and Augustine through Newton and Kant to, say, Guyau, Bergson, James, Heidegger and Mumford, one might easily end up with the feeling that even when no one asks us, we do not know what time is. One faintly promising way to discuss the concept of time is by looking at it from the point of view of the history of communication technologies. The talk offers a sketch of this history, linking cyclic time to primarily oral cultures, linear time to the emergence of alphabetic literacy, historical consciousness and the idea of progress to the printing press, and the twentieth-century experience of simultaneous time or time- less time to the rise of electric and electronic means of communication, focussing, by way of conclusion, on the radical re-ordering of time relations as a consequence of what has recently been termed "perpetual contact" - the ubiquitousness of mobile telephony. Way back in 1934 Lewis Mumford noted that what is effected by "our closer time co-ordination and our instantaneous communication" is "broken time and broken attention". By contrast, the talk argues that the mobile phone gives rise to a new synthesis of mechanical time and organic time, enabling thereby, also, a fresh look at some old issues in the philosophy of the topic.Wittgenstein liked to quote Augustine as saying: "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not" (Confessions, Book XI, Ch. 14, transl. Edward Bouverie Pusey). Time is so obviously a social construct; but again so impossible to conceive of in other than absolute terms. Reviewing the vast array of philosophical reflections on the topic from Aristotle and Augustine through Newton and Kant to, say, Guyau, Bergson, James, Heidegger and Mumford, one might easily end up with the feeling that even when no one asks us, we do not know what time is. One faintly promising way to discuss the concept of time is by looking at it from the point of view of the history of communication technologies. The talk offers a sketch of this history, linking cyclic time to primarily oral cultures, linear time to the emergence of alphabetic literacy, historical consciousness and the idea of progress to the printing press, and the twentieth-century experience of simultaneous time or time- less time to the rise of electric and electronic means of communication, focussing, by way of conclusion, on the radical re-ordering of time relations as a consequence of what has recently been termed "perpetual contact" - the ubiquitousness of mobile telephony. Way back in 1934 Lewis Mumford noted that what is effected by "our closer time co-ordination and our instantaneous communication" is "broken time and broken attention". By contrast, the talk argues that the mobile phone gives rise to a new synthesis of mechanical time and organic time, enabling thereby, also, a fresh look at some old issues in the philosophy of the topic.

Keywords


20th century philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; alpahabetic writing; language of gestures; mobile telephony; Sellars Wilfrid; Simmel Georg

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