Time is a funny thing

The issue on my mind is chronocentrism. It’s the tendency to think that the present time is somehow special or different from past or future eras. I’ve been stewing over this post for a few weeks and it’s still ill-formed, so bear with me.

The concept has bugged me ever since coming across Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which argued that Western liberal democracy represents the pinnacle of humanity’s social/cultural/political evolution. His thesis struck me as plausible but short-sighted. He’s since backtracked from it. I later learned that Hegel had declared the same thing about the 17th century Prussian state, and that claim is demonstrably false.*

Fukuyama is a pretty smart guy. So was Hegel. However, like many of us, they both fell prey to chronocentrism. This mistake matters because it leads to soft analysis. It allows us to take mental short cuts, and not necessarily accurate ones. The mistake continues to crop up today, especially when people talk about innovations and the spread of technology.

One of many possible examples is a report cited in a recent post at Aid on the Edge of Chaos. It contains the following quote:

“CEOs told us they operate in a world that is substantially more volatile, uncertain and complex.  Many shared the view that incremental changes are no longer sufficient in a world that is operating in fundamentally different ways.”

The claims of these CEOs sound entirely plausible, just as Fukuyama’s assertion did. But what does it actually mean that the world is “more complex”? The report used some hand waiving in attempting to quantify this phenomenon, crafting a measure called the “complexity gap”. It sounds very technical until you learn that it’s just “the difference between the expected complexity and the extent to which CEOs feel well prepared to manage it” — in other words, it’s all perception based. It doesn’t measure anything real. You hear similar statements about a “rapidly changing world” or other nonsense. Can someone offer me a non-culturally biased and non-chronocentric measure that supports such a claim? Has the world actually changed, or do we just have newer, trendier language to describe it?

We often make this mistake when discussing major historical events or processes. Our conviction that things are different today fools us into misunderstanding the present financial crisis, or war, or election, or whatever. A few weeks ago, Bill Easterly at AidWatch described a recent book on financial crises titled This Time Is Different; the main thesis is that this time is not different. That’s a message that we don’t hear enough. It’s not that we’re simply repeating history; of course today is different from yesterday. But the world isn’t fundamentally different than it was 10 years or 100 years ago. Thinking that it is can get us into trouble if it influences our planning for policies and programs. Chronocentrism helps us convince ourselves that the conditions today are special, even if we lack any evidence.

Our analysis should be time neutral. I think back to my (mostly wasted) undergraduate days, when I majored in physics.  In physics, time is just another dimension, like height or width. The laws of physics are assumed to be symmetrical along all dimensions — i.e. left is the same as right, and future is the same as past. There are no “anchor” points in space or time. So “now” doesn’t really matter to physics. Carrying this thinking to analysis of historical forces, economic structures and political institutions can be hard. Chronocentric thinking biases our analysis in the same way that cultural-centric or ethno-centric thinking can. It’s hard to shake off our own perspective.

For some reason, I also majored in philosophy.** That’s a field where “now” matters a great deal. Moral philosophy must explain why present norms are different from past norms and what it means that norms will continue to evolve (e.g. changing perceptions of race, homosexuality, etc.). Existentialism focuses on the individual human experience and the conditions surrounding what it means to be — in the present tense. Post-structuralism seeks to understand the role of the “self” that interprets … whatever, you get the point. The lesson from philosophy is that, when human values are injected, “now” starts to mean something.

I would claim that our morality can still be chronocentric. We care more about suffering happening now, than about suffering happening in the distant future (because it’s still potential, rather than actual) or suffering that happened in the past (because we can’t do anything about it, unless it’s leading to present suffering). I think that’s okay. It keeps us on the hook for helping people today. Let’s keep that do-more-now urgency that motivates us. But let’s be wary of letting it invade our analysis. There’s no easy way to do that. I would just encourage you to constantly ask those who make grand statements about historical forces whether there is any evidence that isn’t itself chronocentric. If the answer is no, they might need to take a step back and reconsider.

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* Turns out, maybe Hegel didn’t declare that. Popper interpreted Hegel as saying this, but others dispute it. Whatever. I’ll cite Wikipedia and move on with life. If you have time to check the original source material, please do and let me know.

** When people learn that I double-majored in physics and philosophy, they often respond with something like, “Huh?” and then sometimes follow with, “Oh, I guess those go together.” But they don’t. Let me just clear that up right now. I majored in physics because I was good at math and I majored in philosophy because I like to argue. I called it a “double major in unemployment.”