We humans have a fascination with the concept of time, though -or perhaps because- we do not fully understand the nature of time. Is it continuous, constant, unchangeable and irreversible? Is it relative? Or is it an illusion? While there are many definitions and different ways of interpreting what we mean with ‘time’, a commonly found description is “the apparent progression of events from past to future.” (Sutter, 2022). In this blogpost, I argue why this definition is incomplete and does not hold up for time travel.
Yes, I am serious about time travel. The way I see it we do it all the time, not physically but in our imaginative minds. We learn about our past, trying to avoid making the same mistakes. When we are being nostalgic we favour elements of the past. Retromania is a vivid example of how this manifests (Fisher, 2014). We are also continuously exploring possible futures. The worlds that science fiction propose to us make us reflect on whether those futures resonate with our morality, and what our place is within those visions (Zaidi, 2019).
Apart from science fiction, there are more professional domains that are time travelling in their imagination on a daily basis. Think of historians and foresight practitioners. Also designers use this mindset extensively. According to Candy & Kornet (2019), designers bring futures to life. There are more and more fields within design that focus specifically on making futures experienceable and open the discussion on ‘the future’: critical design, speculative design and design fiction are some examples. Being a designer myself, I recognise the importance of anticipating on ethical consequences of a certain (future) design/technology/development.
However, in my opinion there is one important thing that is consistently being overseen. In time travel there is a certain past-future dualism present. When physicists talk about an Einstein-Rosen bridge (a wormhole that is in essence a shortcut that reduces travel time and distance), they talk about two points in space-time (Tillman & Harvey, 2022). But I think it is not just about two points, it is not only about going forward or going backward. A bridge would not be a bridge if it would not have a middle part that connects two ends. That connection symbolises the present.
I believe we should transform our dualist thinking into an evenly balanced trifecta of the past, the present and the future. The present deserves as much emphasis as both the past and the future, because they are all connected. The present is being influenced by the past and by the future, and that also holds for the other way around. Let us look at Afrofuturism (Herukhuti, 2022) as an illustrative example. It is a hot topic in the present-day because the global north is becoming more and more aware of how African cultures have been neglected in historical perspective. At the same time, it explores how African culture interacts with developing technology. So it challenges the imagination on African futures and simultaneously lets us reflect on the marginalisation of African people in society nowadays.
Disciplines should look at the past-present-future trifecta as well. It is important to realise that everything is connected, no matter from which perspective you are looking. Historians construct the past in order to understand how we have become as we are today. Foresight practitioners base their trends on weak signals in the present. And do not forget that our own everyday lives happen in the present, while being influenced by the past and the future.
“Children have neither a past nor a future. Thus they enjoy the present, which seldom happens to us.” — Jean de La Bruyère
I myself as a designer am going to try to deploy this trifecta mindset in my own time travelling. Acknowledging the present as an entity brings many opportunities with it, but I think it also helps to ground us in our imagination. It should not impose restrictions, but it provides a home base and makes sure we stay close to ourselves. Perhaps this makes time travel more realistic.
Candy, S., & Kornet, K. (2019). Turning Foresight Inside Out: An Introduction to Ethnographic Experiential Futures. Journal of Futures Studies, 2019, 23(3): 3–22.
Fisher, M. (2014). ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’ in Ghosts Of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books.
Herukhuti, R. (2022). The Meaning & Importance Of Afrofuturism. Afrika Is Woke. https://www.afrikaiswoke.com/what-is-afrofuturism/
Sutter, P. (2022). What is time? LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/what-is-time
Tillman, N. T., & Harvey, A. (2022). What is wormhole theory? Space.com. https://www.space.com/20881-wormholes.html
Zaidi, L. (2019). Worldbuilding in Science Fiction, Foresight and Design. Journal of Futures Studies, 23(4): 15–26.
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