Resisting an Epistemology of the Instant

In my work here at sportsBabel, I have discussed (following Eichberg, Guttmann and others) the tyranny of timing that arises as we measure sporting performance in pursuit of the linear record. Athletics sprint races are measured to the thousandth of a second and ratified as conclusive to the hundredth, a situation similar to that found at the velodrome, swimming pool, bobsleigh track and other sites of sporting speed.

We may trace a genealogy of the timing systems used in high performance athletics that increasingly discards the mechanical in favour of the digital and photoelectronic. To measure these absolutely precise times — or more correctly, to maintain the illusion of acceleration and linear progress — we move from the hand-held mechanical stopwatch (with human operator) to the electronic stopwatch (more precise, though still with human operator) and autonomous photo finish camera to the fully automated timing system and its modular photo finish system. We eliminate the visible smoke from the gun report as the referent to begin timing on the stopwatch in favour of electronically-integrated timing (a flow, or vector through space), and we eliminate the substrate of film and darkroom chemical development techniques for the digital image (a stock, or vector through time). Sporting time becomes a part of the electronic network, what I have referred to as a panhaptic technique of control.

But it is this will to speed that should cause concern. Jean-Marie Brohm refers to this will in sport as facilitating a "prison of measured time." I'll say that it fosters a sporting epistemology of the instant.

Can we resist such an epistemology, not only in sport, but in society? If yes, what sort of timing system would be required to do so?

If, for example, in the era of planned obsolescence we are to build a clock to last 10,000 years, what sort of materials do we need to use? Certainly not the cheap circuitry found in common digital timepieces today. For that matter, nor can we likely count on even the more complex electronics required in cutting-edge precision timing systems discussed above — how can we presume that our systems of electrical production and distribution are sustainable for 10,000 years?

No, we need something more durable and reliable, with an energy source that is likely to extend deep into the future.

The Long Now Foundation has been working on such a problem for a while now. Following a proposal by computer scientist Danny Hillis to build a monument-scale, multi-millennial, all-mechanical clock as a symbol to promote long term thinking, the Long Now have built two prototype clocks and are currently working on the full-scale monument.

But this is just the technical apparatus of measuring time; what about the measurements themselves and the epistemological shift they may imply/catalyze? Well, if contemporary high-speed timing systems can allow us to "authoritatively" discuss the hundredth and thousandth of a second — that is, to extend the zero in a rightward direction — then the clock of the Long Now similarly allows us to extend the zero in a leftward sense: the year 2007 becomes 02007 when measured on a 10,000-year scale.

It's not that we are incapable of fathoming such a time scale — indeed, temporal units of analysis in paleontology are of the order of millions of years — but that we fail to think on such a time scale in everyday practice as we navigate the society of the instant. The work of the Long Now is an attempt to have each of us think beyond the society of the instant in a quotidian sense; following the example of friend and colleague Stuart Candy (author of The Sceptical Futuryst and himself a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation), I will endeavour to write years from now on in 5-digit format.

It is seemingly a simple or trivial gesture, but it gets me thinking about resisting the epistemology of the instant, and for that reason alone is sufficiently complex.


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