Perceptual time travel

As a person, I’m interested in science fiction and the notion of time travel.  As a postgraduate student with important work to get on with, I like to procrastinate.  With these two powers combined, I felt it was about time I wrote about something that I’ve been thinking about for a while but never put into words.

I’m going to assume we can not physically travel back in time, that we can not be present in the past.  Or, at least, if it is possible it’s not what I’m concerned with here.  I’ve been thinking about ‘time travel’ as a means to describe the perception of witnessing past events, from their contemporary perspective, as they are occurring.  I will call this ‘perceptual time travel’.

(I should also mention I have made absolutely no effort to see if anyone else has looked at this phenomenon.  It may or may not be ‘original’.)

In Groundhog Day, Phil (played by Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over, each morning waking up to Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’.  Once Phil realises this happens, an expectation forms.  So, when the day after Groundhog Day finally comes around, and the same song happens to be playing on the radio, it’s not immediately apparent.  Phil still believes it’s Groundhog Day until something out of the ordinary happens to provoke a sort of Gestalt shift of awareness.

It is until this shift occurs that Phil is taking part in perceptual time travel.  Phil does not yet realise that time has passed and a new day has arrived.  Phil believes all of the external events have already happened and it’s possible to observe them again.

It is this level of belief, of immersion, of existing within an idea that is important here.  The fiction situation in Groundhog Day simply helps highlight this.

Another example exists in every undergraduate philosopher’s favourite film, The Matrix.  It is set in the future (from now) but almost all of the human population are experiencing an imposed reality of Earth around the turn of the millennium.  They believe they are participating in a past they don’t know is the past.

Of course, this example doesn’t quite work here because the past is a false one, fabricated by the machines.  It only serves to highlight the focus on perception, through immersion, for time travel of this kind to work.

Technology can present us with the past, and it is technology that can facilitate or impede immersion within the representation’s timeline.  Documentary (and perhaps all) film, for example, can show us past events in varying degrees of ‘real-time’.  However, the limited perspective of the camera, the quality of the picture and the environment the film is viewed in limits the viewer’s level of immersion.

But it doesn’t prevent it completely.  Though perceptual time travel can describe a situation of unquestioned belief of presence in the past, such as may be the case in the day after Groundhog Day, it is more about a scale of more or less immersion within the temporal location of past events.  Watching film leads to perceptual time travel to varying degrees, depending on many complex environmental factors that limit or help focus.

Reading a book for the second time triggers the experience of the previous reading.  We may think (at least I occasionally do), ‘I remember where I was and what the weather was like last time I read this sentence.’  But our surroundings, our overall interface, reminds us of our current temporal location.

From here we may begin to wonder if we can increase our immersion potential by simplifying the interface and the content.  (Well, I do at least.  I don’t know about other people.)  If we make it easier to experience a recording of an event without breaking the temporal illusion, perceptual time travel becomes stronger.

One example is Twitter.  It’s a simple interface that doesn’t change drastically and that we can view on any computer.  If I wanted to watch how a particular event was covered using a hashtag (and if I had access to all the tweets) I could play them back in real-time using an interface (software, computer hardware, the environment of my room, etc.) that is not visually dissimilar enough to its historical counterpart that I would be conscious of any errors of continuity.  If I can not differentiate between my surroundings today and what they were like on January 25 2011, then it’s easier to trick myself into experiencing events as they are re-unfolding for the first time.

(We can also use this sort of set-up to trick someone else into thinking an event is happening live, thinking that the window into the past is happening concurrent with their position outside of it.  This perhaps wouldn’t work with dated events such as the Moon landing, but could be successful with live television and Twitter feeds – as long as timestamps aren’t prominent enough to be noticed.)

But then we uncover difficult questions of lag.  Isn’t normal live television delayed anyway, even if for only a few seconds?  And if the speed of light (and brain processing, etc.) is not immediate, then aren’t we always experiencing and living in the past?

In short, this notion of perceptual time travel deals with increasing the potential of temporal immersion within experiences of historical replay, to the possible  extent that an individual absolutely believes they are experiencing a past event ‘live’.

Just thought I’d put this jumbled mess out there =P

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