Isn’t it About Time?
by Dwayne Holmes
The year is 2016, and Evo Morales wants to alter time to free the people of Bolivia.
Well, sort of… In any case, I like what he’s up to and want a piece of that action.
Of course, if this is going to be a story of altered timelines, I should probably pick a better place to start. Somewhere before the action begins. Maybe I should start by answering a few basic questions like “What is the nature of time?” and “How the hell can someone change time?”
The answer to both is easy, time is — at heart — a social construct.
Let’s think about this. Even at its most objective and scientific, time is simply the defining of one sequence of events by comparing it to another sequence of events. There is no true, universal baseline unit for quantifying one event’s passage into another. So time is by necessity relative and arbitrary, beyond whatever use a certain set of events might have for an observer when choosing their baseline.
At its most subjective and ephemeral, time is what we use to define ourselves and the world around us. Or, since we are typically already socialized before we begin thinking about time, it is a cultural lens which refocuses and thereby shapes how we define ourselves and the world around us. There are good times, bad times, times for work, times for play, sacred times, profane times, times to pretend you care about people you really hate, and times for them to pretend to care about you. The list goes on and on. There are no true, universal criteria by which to categorize any period of time. It is, at any given moment — and even if we don’t realize it — up to us.
It’s the 1980s, and a book really gets me thinking: Eviatar Zerubavel’s Hidden Rhythms, a sociological account of how we experience time . By 2016, it’s been decades since I read the book, so I can’t claim to remember much at all. But I have to credit it for breaking me of my somewhat clinical way of viewing time and our relationship with it. In the ‘80s it forced me to consider time as a social construct, a social phenomenon, or perhaps better said, a set of social habits.
This can be understood by looking at how we choose to arrange our days. Indeed, the very concept of a day itself involves our viewing our lives as part of a roughly circular cycle, based on the steady rhythm of a rising and setting sun. If born on a planet which constantly faced its star or from which no star could be seen at all, everything could just as easily have been thought of as a linear progression, with no natural cycles. Across most of the world, people have chosen to divide days into sub-cycles (called “hours”), with each sub-cycle placed into a linear progression to complete one “day” cycle.
Days are then fitted into progressive patterns of still larger cycles such as weeks, months, and years. While ultimately arbitrary, the larger cycles are usually based on some naturally recurring events such as phases of the moon, or positions of stars (including the sun). Some cultures set years into still larger cycles, based on actual celestial or proposed “heavenly” events. Across different societies time has been viewed as cycles within an open linear progression without end, cycles within a progression which comes to a full stop (nothing after), or cycles within grander cosmic cycles with no relevant progression.
All of these different ways of viewing time affect the way we interpret actions and events within our lives.
We are back in the year 2016, and Evo Morales wants none of it. Now that he mentions it, neither do I. And as I’ve suggested, it is possible to break that system with the power of our minds alone. So, he does.
The year is now 5524. Evo Morales has won (in this little bit of speculative fiction), and the Bolivian people have been freed from the oppression of an alien culture by breaking the psycho-social shackles of time itself . How? How have the Bolivians managed to escape? What does this freedom give them?
Well, they managed to escape, because it is not 2016. Like Tinkerbell, it is only 2016 if you believe 2016 exists. And for Bolivians 2016 is bad news. That particular set of progressive cycles refocuses social cognition such that the Bolivians appear a minor people stumbling late onto the stage of some grand timeline of some grander people. However, from the perspective of 5524, the existence of the Bolivian people suddenly appears much deeper. The time spent under the thumb of another culture is a mere fractional nuisance prior to the regaining of their freedom (and getting their own cultural progression back on track). This temporal-cognition-based freedom allows them to view their actions as independent from the concerns of others and meaningful within a context they can define.
Can they do that? Yes, they can.
Isn’t that dangerous? You tell me.
Time has come undone. The year is now 5776 and 4349 and 1395 and 4653 and 1438 and so on . This part isn’t speculative fiction. Right now, people are living in these different time periods and it means something to them. They are able to view themselves and their actions in a context that the year 2016 does not allow. To someone fully socialized to believe in the year 2016, these may seem like hollow numbers, something meaningless… perhaps something humorous, like these people are clinging to a security blanket. Grow up and get with the program, it is 2016.
Should it be?
We are in the past once more, around the mid to late 1990s (in the popular Western timeline). The “millennium” is on the horizon and with Zerubavel’s social aspects of time working on me, I get a bit fed up with how bizarre our concept of time is. How dysfunctional. The Gregorian calendar is a mess.
I won’t spend much time discussing its bizarrely uneven monthly cycles, except to note that we almost changed that early last century . This opportunity was shot down by the US, based on a (supposed) problem that more practical, perennial calendars would pose for Christian religious practices. I guess I should also note that Evo Morales wants to change that too, breaking from the Gregorian calendar completely, with an easily understood and managed year of 13 months with 28 days each. But I don’t know that in the 1990s.
The bigger problem for me is the calendar’s bifurcation of human history. By placing the majority of human history before year one it manages to “cog-block” crucial periods of thought and development. This is not an unintended bug, but a feature of the system. The point of many dating systems has been to recognize a moment in time (often the rise to power of some leader), before which we need not concern ourselves. Everything prior to that moment being unimportant, not part of the progression, and cemented as such behind a temporal-cognitive wall that is year one of this or that dude’s reign.
Put more clinically, the Gregorian calendar hinders understanding of human history, by setting most of it in a category called B.C. (Before Christ), which requires different means of calculating their temporal relationship to all historical events labeled A.D. (Anno Domini). What’s more, the fact that B.C. dates move in the opposite direction from those in the AD timeframe, creates an illusion of regression about them, like they grow less and less relevant. The combined effect is anything but cognitively neutral. It forces you to spend extra energy in order to place current events in context with much of human history. The Gregorian system does not want you to do that. The intention is for you to define yourself and world events in the context of everything A.D., with everything else B.C. somewhat disjointed and out of place.
For many people in the Middle Ages, particularly where knowledge from ancient Greece and other civilizations was being suppressed, that makes sense. But, in what I was taking to be the modern world, this makes no sense. Events around year one have no meaning to me, and after the Enlightenment (here I might begin with the Scottish Enlightenment), the most interesting things relative to which I would want to set current actions and events in “proper” context took place centuries to millennia before 1A.D. or more than a millennium after (when knowledge from ancient and non-Western civilizations enjoyed a resurgence in Western thought).
I felt particularly let down by scholars who tried to shed the religious connotations of the Gregorian dating system, while maintaining the system itself with flimsy changes to the post date abbreviations. That is B.C. (Before Christ) became B.C.E. (Before Common Era), and A.D. (Anno Domini) became C.E. (Common Era), as if there was any relevant meaning to “Common Era” besides an oblique reference to the religious figure that the original abbreviations denoted. It is easy to tell what lies beneath that fig leaf, so why bother? It doesn’t change the cognitive problem, which is our disconnect from the rest of human history.
So I set about finding an alternative dating system which (like Morales of 2016), I felt would break the temporal-cognitive shackles of a long irrelevant (arguably dead) culture still hobbling the modern mind. To create a deeper, richer history with a secular (and arguably more pragmatic) context and more meaningful sense of progression.
The most obvious move was to adopt already existing dating systems that covered the entirety of the periods (and major events) I felt were important. The Hebrew calendar seemed pretty good, especially as the Jewish people were part of Western culture already and practiced in using their system alongside the Gregorian calendar, with a downside that much of the calendar (besides the year) is complex . The Chinese calendar was another appealing option, with the benefit of having many more adherents, but a downside of its being much more complex and not entirely settled on what year it actually is . Of course, a common problem to all existing systems is that they are very different from Gregorian dates, requiring a larger cognitive “switch” to adopt.
In the end I created my own calendar systems, capitalizing on the fact that the millennium was coming and people would have to change things anyway.
I thought of two options.
The first was what I called an “historical” calendar, the idea behind which was to capture the emergence of written language (in one fashion or another), and thereby provide a reasonably direct and continuous historical record of human activity. All one would have to do is add 4000 to the current year, at the turn of the millennium, and so 2000 AD would became 6000. This wouldn’t require much thought on anyone’s part, beyond remembering (when referring to previous dates) to add 4000. And all dates prior to year 0 of this historical system would be called “pre-historical”. If people needed post number abbreviations they could use H.E. (Historical Era) and P.H. (Pre-Historical).
The second was what I called a “civil” calendar, relating to the emergence of large scale civilizations from smaller, tribal communities. This is even easier. Just add 10,000. So 2000 AD, becomes 12,000 CE (Civil Era). No one would even notice the difference (we could leave off the 10,000 for most common transactions), except when studying history where all the previous B.C. stuff would become part of a continuous history.
I made historical charts, converting Gregorian dates to my historical and civil dates. It was a liberating experience that helped put things in better perspective … at least for myself. Unfortunately – obviously — I wasn’t able to sell either concept and so they eventually sank into the junk drawer of my mind. What a waste.
That is until 2016, when I read the article on Evo Morales’s intentions to change the calendar of Bolivia. If Evo could pull this off, maybe others around the world were ready to make a temporal paradigm shift too.
Surprisingly, while researching dating systems for this essay, I found my ideas were not new. Not by a long shot. My Historical system was already in use by the Freemasons … not sure how I missed that. And my Civil system was proposed by the geoscientist Cesare Emiliani (in Nature of all places), just a few years before I made mine . Emiliani linked his system explicitly to the Holocene epoch (calling it the Holocene Era (HE) and Holocene calendar), for roughly the same reason I chose the starting date for my system: the emergence of large scale human civilizations. Apparently research has shifted the official starting date of the Holocene, making it problematic for Emiliani’s intended naming system, but it looks like proponents have merely shifted from Holocene Era to Human Era. “Civil Era” still sounds cool to me, and perhaps less egocentric than “Human Era,” but in this case I’d rather switch than fight.
I’m not sure whether to be encouraged that my ideas already existed and have some followers (even if small in number) or discouraged that these separate efforts also failed to catch on with the larger public. In the heady spirit of potential Bolivian independence, I’m going to go with “encouraged.” Certainly times have changed since I drafted my historical charts.
Perhaps such a project would be of interest to the secular humanist, religious skeptic, and/or atheist communities, which have all grown in size and power since the 1990s. At the very least this would seem to serve their interests, while providing a more concrete and so plausible goal than fighting religious belief. In fact, while secular in theme, and facilitating secular thought, it wouldn’t have to be anti-religious. Many religions have their own dating systems that are different from the Gregorian calendar so it wouldn’t affect them, beyond granting relief at not having a Christian-themed system as the standard. And Christians themselves would be freed from the factually dubious dating system currently hobbling the understanding of their own religion (religious scholars agree that Jesus, if real, was not born January 1, year 1). About the only people this would pose a problem for are religious zealots, who think the earth is less than 10,000 years old.
Maybe the stars are right for this to finally happen.
We are in the present moment. Right now.
And I’m just going to set this idea right here… and see what happens.