Multitemporality: 1

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Multitemporality

Today I officially start my fellowship at the Berggruen Institute, working on my multitemporality project. At the moment the plan for the project is to write a book, but who knows. It might morph into a comic book or an interpretive dance, as I’ve been telling people who seem inclined to form oppressively burdensome presumptions about what I’m up to. I don’t want to ruin this pleasant snowflake buzz I have going on here by committing firmly to a particular output form too early. But it’s probably going to be a book.

What, you ask, is multitemporality? YOU HAD TO ASK HUH? YOU COULDN’T LEAVE ME ALONE?? Well, you asked for it.

This mind map represents the actual state of the project in all its inglorious messiness, after two years of back-burner nudging along in stolen moments here and there. It now needs to go front-burner. Since some of you have, in the past, expressed curiosity about my Certified Creative Genius™ working methods, I figured I’d start a blogchain as a way to track my progress on this project, as well as to put some social pressure on myself to stay disciplined and moving along.

For starters, lemme share my plan to tame this mess I’ve made.

Frankly, there is no plan.

I’m sort of making it up as I go along. The last time I did a structured, longer-term research project in an institutional setting was 2004-06 (that was my postdoctoral research, which eventually ended up as Tempo in pop-science-philosophy form), and I’ve basically forgotten how to do such things, and gotten used to essay-length work. Plus I am 15 years older and slower. Plus I also had a few students to help that time. Significant retooling and cognitive refurbishment necessary in this aging factory.

Plus, this is not like an academic research project driven by grant funding and expectations of journal papers and peer review and such anyway. Thanks to the enlightened people at Berggruen, I’ve received the blessing+curse of loose expectations.

I made the mind map today to take stock, bootstrap the project into consciousness, start the clock, and start imposing some authoritah on it. As you can see, I’m using a computer metaphor for the project, with input on the left and output on the right to model the state of the project.

On the input side, there is a slum-like sprawl of discovery material waiting to be triaged, a prioritized bunch of books queued up, and a bunch of my own old writing (where this project took shape) scoped-in for review (madelines not included).

There is also a messy output state. The only presentable piece of output so far is a talk from last year (video). Everything else is WIP crud that needs some mix of tender, loving care (TLC) and brutal, hating apathy (BHA) to coerce into some sort of shape that can serve as a beginning. Planning to start is a bitch. It’s much harder than planning to finish.

Project Clock

You’ll notice I’ve labeled the core node of this state-snapshot mindmap “Multitemporality Tick1”. This is a reference to the tick-tocking of a clock of course, but it is also a specific reference to the old Intel tick-tock model for nudging Moore’s Law along (ticks were process shrinks, and tocks were microarchitecture updates).

This points to a nice bit of meta-dogfooding I have going on here. A premise of the project is that it is possible and desirable to construct subjective time “clocks” based on rhythms in your stream of consciousness driven by the information environment of the particular escaped reality you choose to inhabit (Moore’s Law is of course the stream-of-consciousness clock of the computing and software industry). So this project should at least fit its own theory. I’d like my work on this project to occur not just in a particular headspace, but a particular headtime. A kairos for the project, sort of a temporal operating system. It would be nice for this project to be self-exemplifying.

I don’t know what my tick-tock unit is yet. I have some vague idea of a rhythmic waxing and waning of project entropy, with perhaps a day/night dynamic created by being relatively in praxis or poiesis modes. I wish I had the stark and simple poetic imagination of T. S. Eliot, who measured out his life in coffee spoons. Eliot, incidentally, was associated with the Bloomsbury Set, the literary circle (including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes among others) inspired by the subjectivist philosopher of time, Henri Bergson. So there’s lots of entanglement here.

Tick 1, incidentally, is not the actual start time for the lifecycle of a project. That’s just the moment when the high-concept comes together as an “Aha!” (I think I’m there). It’s the tick heard around the project, reverberating through past and future. The period before there is an atemporal zone of liminality and discovery where there is no tick-tock going on. Aion flowing into Kairos, flowing into Chronos. That’s what it takes to get to Tick 1. I called this the Double Freytag in Tempo, but perhaps I should call it the Snowflake Raga. I’m done with the first atemporal movement in raga music known as the aalap. The tabla has kicked in.

I used to play the tabla back in the day, did you know? I was actually pretty decent at it. In another life, I might have been a budget Zakir Hussain playing in an Indian-music dad-band.

My mind map is also a memory map of the last two years as much as it is a map of the current state (words like current become interestingly elusive when you’re studying time). Proust, another guy in the Greater Bergson Circle, famously reduced his memory cue to a madeline. This mind-map is my madeline.

Maybe I should title the mind-map madeline-spoon. As a poet, I’m very derivative.

Speaking of clocks, it’s interesting to reflect on what’s actually driving my objective, external clock-time schedule now.

Part of the expectation of this fellowship is that I’ll work out of the office 3-4 days a week, so that’s a return to a partial industrial style chronos 9-5 expectation after 8 years in an atemporal, feral wilderness where nobody expected me to be anywhere, anytime by default. So returning to an industrial schedule is a bit of trip down memory lane.

Rather aptly for this project, the Berggruen Institute is housed in the historic Bradbury Building, most famous for being a location featured in the original Blade Runner movie. So the connection to Philip K. Dick, OG pop-philosopher of time, feels pleasantly apt. Every time I walk up to my office, I walk past tourists in the lobby gawking at the madeline of their own cinematic memories.

PKD once observed that reality is that which does not go away when you stop believing in it, a definition whose inversion is central to my project. The tourists gawking at the architecture are doing exactly what I hope to provide a satisfying account of: trying to believe more strongly in an escaped reality by approaching its least-escaped elements more closely, as though trying to ground fantasy in reality by entering a temple.

Los Angeles is full of this kind of temple-visiting behavior. I haven’t yet been to Disneyland, but Universal Studios is a dozen escaped realities constructed specifically for your PKD-ish reality-escapist pleasure. The closer you get to the inner sanctum of a time temple, the more perfect your escape into an alternate reality.

Studying time constantly has you thinking about weirdness like this. Time, as the title of J. T. Fraser’s famous book on the subject proclaims, is a “familiar stranger.” As long as you’re not thinking about it, it seems familiar and boring. The moment you actually take a look, it starts getting very strange and loopy and self-referential.

Like any modern information-work workplace, the Berggruen Institute is pretty easygoing and flex-timey, so what’s actually driving my schedule today on my first day is my cat. I left him 2 feedings in his automated feeder (driven by countdown mechanical clocks) and he’s going to start getting hungry and upset by around 6. So my schedule is partly driven by 2 chronos clocks (9-5 office routine and a mechanical cat feeder), and 1 kairos clock (a cat’s stream of hunger-consciousness). This theme of how loose synchronization of subjectivities — in this case the entangled cat+me system — drives a sense of time, is also front and center for me. Right now, one strand of my stream of consciousness is simulating and mirroring whatever my cat is up to. This is the ordinary kind of entanglement that leads some to believe in the more telepathic varieties.

When I was a kid, we were told that hiccups are a sign that someone is thinking of you somewhere. Increasingly, software makes that sort of idea literal. I’m planning to set up my Dropcam soon to spy on my cat from work. He hiccups, I hiccup.

In the background of this project kickoff, another sad and grim clock is ticking — my wife is away in Michigan, three time zones away, caring for her terminally ill father. Half my attention is on my text-exchanges with her as we discuss his evolving condition. Text message dings have been punctuating my days for the last couple of weeks (this is also the reason I’m temporarily the primary caregiver for our cat).

Though I wish I didn’t have this grim reminder in my personal life, around the world, mythological personifications of time have usually also been personifications of death. I’ve been thinking about that connection in the abstract for two years now, and suddenly it has become all too real.

In the West, the Greek god Chronos evolved into the Roman god of objective time, Saturn (possibly via conflation with Cronus, the king of gods), and then into the modern Father Time, the familiar figure of death in a black hood with a scythe (who has also, via Terry Pratchett novels, been a constant presence in my stream of consciousness for the last two years as I’ve binged the Discworld series). In Hinduism, Yama is both god of death and god of time (sometimes referred to as Kala, subordinate to Shiva, or Mahakala — Great Time, god of creative destruction).

While the idea of time-as-death is associated primarily with Chronos — an inescapable, objective reality and an inexorably ticking-down countdown clock that doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it — there is also an element of Kairos in the mythology, as hinted at by the alternative name for Father Time: The Grim Reaper. The imagery of harvesting when the time is “ripe”, subjectively judged, juxtaposed with that of your time being “up” in an objective sense, paints a portrait of death as a moment of convergence when both kinds of clocks stop together for a particular living thing. I suppose that’s what the line “meditation is the art of conscious dying” gets at. Bringing Chronos and Kairos together in harmony at the end of a life (and Aion too, the third personification of time I’ve talked about here for a while, though that’s a more complicated connection).

As you can see from the self-referential entangled mess I’ve created in my head thinking about all this for 2 years, and the red TODO items I’ve set for myself in the mind-map, there is need for compression, systematization, and serialization, and some brutal pruning of bunnytrails and taming of shrubbery.

The analogy to processor evolution is almost too close for comfort. For example, I want to try and pull everything into Scrivener as my one monolithic tool (monolithic is an architecture approach to processor design, as well as Tiago Forte’s approach to building a second brain, a personal psyche-engineering project that has some interesting commonalities with my notion of creating your own time — to create your own time is perhaps to create a second brain, and vice versa). The prospect of doing this seems a bit like trying to sew Frankenstein’s monster together and trying to breathe pulsating life into it. To switch from this tick to its paired tock, I have to bootstrap some good old Bergsonian élan vital in here.

Some of this is going to be grunt work (email notes to myself). Some will need technical tricks (the export from my private slack channel where I was initially scribbling notes is in JSON form). Some could probably benefit from tricks (twitter bookmarks) but I’ll probably just grunt through them. I hope this first tick is the heavy lift, and once I get it all sucked into Scrivener, future tweaks will be easier. The first tock, or microarchitecture update, will be to rethink my 2-year-old table-of-contents/outline since that’s now garbage based on my more recent thinking.

I love outlines. I especially love the crunching sound they make when they collapse under the weight of what you’re trying to coerce them into doing.

So far, I haven’t come up with a good elevator pitch for what I’m up to. This sort of thing, from my Berggruen project page, is what I usually come up with when asked by people who I can’t subject to the sort of meandering tour of an illegible headspacetime that is this post:

During his Berggruen fellowship year, he plans to study the changing relationship between time perception and the human condition, with particular focus on the hypothesis that a century-old culture based on universally shared objective clock time is giving way to a condition of multitemporality — a human condition based on a fragmented landscape of subjective time cultures. 

I usually have to shuffle my feet and go hide behind the nearest potted plant when I describe the project this way. Research-stage larger projects are necessarily embarrassing, like a baby’s poopy diaper. This is my poopy diaper pitch. I hope my next few iterations get me closer to, say, baby powder smell, then to elevator pitch smell, and finally, new car smell.

I wonder if there is a god of time-smells. I guess that thought goes direct to the Nuggets section in Scrivener now.

It feels weird to be back in a somewhat structured institutional context after more than 8 years. I have access to an actual library now, and have an office and stuff. I haven’t done a proper literature search in 20 years. Hmm, maybe I’ll scrounge around for some budget to hire a research assistant.

Anyway, here we are, and here we go. Tick tock.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Maya -the complement of Yama/Time- is streaming? Your maya is different from my maya. Only I can resolve my maya. Vak/language/karana/grammar helps each cognise another’s maya.

    • Interesting, I was not aware of that. Is that just your observation MaYa –> YaMa as a permutation, or is that of some significance in the mythology I’m not aware of?

      I was actually planning to name the lead character of a possibly fictional treatment of the topic Maya, as in my Maya Millennial post a couple of years ago (idea is to do the book as a quasi-fictional form where a character named Maya explores the nature of time)

  2. James Cham says

    This is terrific and I am looking forward to reading what comes out of the Fellowship. Reading Tempo was very influential for me. Here is a half-formed thought. We have something similar to Baumol’s Cost Disease, except for time rather than money. Some activities have become so time efficient (people used to drive down to the utility to hand someone a check to pay the bills; now I get annoyed waiting an extra 3 seconds for a bank website to load), while others (my commute? getting entertained on TV?) take have not improved in efficiency, seem to take more time, and drive us slowly crazy. (I’m not sure this is original. I wouldn’t be surprised if I read it on Ribbonfarm at some point though it didn’t show up in a quick Google search.)

    • I believe I mentioned Baumol cost disease in breaking smart.

      Certainly an intriguing thought thought/connection, thanks. The time/money versions may in fact be the same, since the cost disease affects sectors where core activity has seen no productivity gains, which translates to time efficiency. Still takes as long to learn the violin or teach calculus or nurse a sick person as 200y age. So education, music, healthcare have seen no time acceleration.

      That’s partly why these fields can seem to be in their own time warp zone.

      • Aruna Kumar says

        I think often there is a fallacy to “time to learn” and that fallacy is connected to self deception. The learning one does when being exposed by well intentioned parents vs. the learning to perform, to create, to change the world around us.
        Has technology not helped time to learn?
        I truly believe it has. Time to learn is based on access to curated knowledge. The reduction in that time that tech has helped leads to truly accelerated learning. The learning then is only subject to the latency in individual memory, compute capacities to be change behaviors based on what has been learned. Here, the breaking of habits to create new ones is critical and that is not yet tech driven although some of the “reminders” from headspace or my watch are tugging at something superficially that perhaps will go deeper soon.

  3. Thanks for sharing your project. The concept reminds me a little of agriculture, where certain crop cycles run independently within the annual cycle. Maybe 9-5 conditioning overlaid on a static seeming annual cycle reduced our sensitivity to the subjective nature of time?

  4. Tammy Troup says

    It’s interesting that our relationship with time might be collapsing simultaneously as our relationship with space. Kern’s The Culture of Time & Space, 1880-1918 described an early phase of this. The start of the 100 year old culture which you mentioned. Also worth adding to your short list of “Next books to read…” is Eugene Minkowski Lived Time.

  5. Maria Avramidi says


  6. Connects to the business space as well. Futurist Kurt Cagle gives a well-reasoned (if not alarmist) argument for why Agile is dead. He predicts that work methodologies will soon move to “an asynchronous event model”. Worth the 5 minute read, there might be some connections to be made.

  7. kek

  8. Chris Anderson says

    I’ve probably linked this in your comments before, but no discussion of time is complete without grappling with McTaggart’s distinction between the A series and the B series in his argument the time is a fiction.

  9. It’s interesting, thank you for sharing.

  10. It’s remarkable to visit this website and reading the views of all colleagues about this
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  11. Shahbaz Shaikh says

    Hey you’re super cool and this sounds super cool too.

    I’d recommend looking into Synchronicity by Carl Jung – he unpacks an idea of universal alignment with some anecdotes and evidence to say that all beings are affected by all parts of the universe all at once. He uses those claims that to imply, in the context of considering an individual’s mental space as bounded to these other events in some conception of space-time, that time doesn’t actually exist and instead that we are all mental territories that are being unpacked. As this troubles a practical notion of time and speaks to a framework of meaning, I figured it’d be relevant to this project of yours.

    Another aside is Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Some critical theorists referencing this work talk through the maladies of the fetishes of global suffering cycles (donating during hurricane seasons or preparing heartfelt commercials of suffering children) and believe that the escapes these provide from their likely implicit purported involvement in a system that generated that violence makes their escape (donation and empathy) key to sustaining the violence they think they’ve helped abate. Very woo-woo references but I guess the point is like to bring up is that going to Disneyland can be bad. The Disneyland metaphor is essentially critical of the frame of mind that escapes because that frame of mind needs other experiences to be enmeshed in or consume (like stopping suffering). Making this single point of consumable history is likened to the death of history and things Fukuyama said about history ending. History does indicate a social time as an amalgam of stories and definition of periods and denotings of epochs and all that.

    I brought up that last bit to mention a-historicity as well. It’s the notion that hyper individualization is contrary to person good as of a family and your ancestors previous life experiences and those sorts of ideas connote a personal death of history.