About Time

I’ve been too busy relaxing to have any time for writing, so for tonight here’s another interesting item for you to watch: Philip Zimbardo on The Secret Powers of Time.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    I liked this vid better than that other silly one on empathetic culture, though I was curious to see the glaring omission of a third kind of present-orientation: the Zen kind (though I’d argue that it’s not uniquely Zen by any means), which is neither about hedonism or about nihilism/fatalism. This orientation views the Now as that on which we should always be focused and about which we should be mindful, because of its preciousness: the past is gone, the future hasn’t been realized; the present is all we have. It’s the just-this of This Moment.

    Posted August 27, 2010 at 1:13 am | Permalink
  2. Jesse Kaplan says

    Not only that, but this video seemed to favor future-orientation. I would argue that’s not only contrary to Zen, but to all religions. I think this shows how the schema is heuristically useful, but over-simple. For instance, it parses Catholics and Protestants along its axes in a manner that is true at one level and false at another, because these religions share the same premises — or, alternatively, look at those Protestants of at least the past who believed their place in heaven was fixed and unalterable, versus those who have to earn their way in.

    Did the video ever use the words “optimist” and “pessimist”?

    Posted August 27, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Kevin, Jess,

    Good points both. It does make one wonder how religious Dr. Zimbardo is.

    Regardless of soteriology, a future time orientation is a necessary asset for survival in cold northern places — and as you say, Jess, that understanding is of heuristic value. Particularly so, I think, in explaining some of the flow of history.

    Posted August 27, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Let me clarify that: a strong future time orientation is necessary for building an expanding agricultural-based civilization in cold places. Not so much for hunter-gatherer or herding lifestyles.

    Posted August 27, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says

    Temporal orientation is also a question of urbanization, a point that’s often brought up in religious studies circles. Many primitive rural cultures, be they hunter-gatherer or agricultural, tended to have worldviews rooted in the idea of “world maintenance,” e.g., “Let this season’s crops flourish,” or “Let the hunt be plentiful,” with no real thought that the world was moving toward some sort of Omega Point. Such religions didn’t have developed eschatologies, nor did they have much sense of history in the way that we moderns talk about history. Time was cyclical for them — an “eternal return,” to steal a phrase from Mircea Eliade. Stories about the past were stories about an idealized past, and were designed for retelling. Religious rituals, in such societies, were about re-evoking and re-experiencing those cosmic events of legend, not about moving everything forward or otherwise investing in the future.

    With urbanization came a whole new set of existential difficulties associated with how to live both together and well; one result of this demographic pressure was a more developed sense of time and history, arising from urbanites’ interactions with different cultures. With cities as the nexuses for traveling traders, more than physical goods were exchanged: there were also stories, and memeplexes in the form of languages and customs. The urban mind was (and is) a mind given to comparative thinking, and that’s a short step away from a modern, scientific outlook. The diversity that came with urbanization probably led to what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, a period during which humanity seemed collectively to “wake up” to realities beyond the limited scope of world-maintenance thinking. Within that waking-up was the aforementioned growing awareness of time and history; some cultures began to conceive of these things as being less cyclical and more linear. Even those cultures that stayed with the cyclical model developed concepts resembling a sort of personal eschaton, e.g., the idea that, if time and the world are a great, oppressive Wheel, the Wheel nonetheless exists in an even greater context, which can only be fully experienced by hopping off the Wheel.

    The video talks about how it’s possible to use certain metrics to see cultural variations between and among cities, but I don’t recall whether the video talks about urbanization as having a role in the differentiation of people’s temporal orientations.

    If I may shift away from urbanization for a moment: one thing I liked about the video was the part that talked about the new pedagogical approaches we need in order to keep up with the changing times. The mantra these days is “student-centered and task-oriented,” which isn’t really a new idea, but it’s relevant as a critique of how education is usually handled. Many teachers seem to think that straight lecture is an effective teaching method, but in reality it’s good for little more than dispensing a large amount of information to the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time. Lecture encourages student passivity and boredom — something the video addresses. Me, I hate quiet classrooms, and try not to teach in such a way that students are just… sitting… there. It’s far better to engage them as much as possible by making them work through problems and arrive at insights and solutions on their own. Despite my quibbles with certain parts of the video, there were segments, like the part about education, that I heartily agreed with.

    Posted August 27, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Jesse Kaplan says

    One hates to follow Kevin’s poetic soliloquy with anything terse, but it may be noticed no one advocates past orientation, while among us and the video we have varying preferences for the present and future. It also seems inescapable that our modern urban culture requires greater future orientation. We don’t seem too clear about the optimal orientation location, however.

    Posted August 27, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Since “moving forward” isn’t so much an orientation as a brute fact, it seems to me to be a matter of mere emphasis whether conservatives of the Burkeian tradition would be seen as past oriented or future oriented.

    Posted August 28, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  8. Jesse Kaplan says

    I like your point, Bob. It might make Malcolm ponder a millisecond, as he seems to be angling for future-orientation above, yet frequently advocating for the past elsewhere.

    Posted August 28, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Excellent comments all round, though from yours, Jess, I get the feeling that you think I am not much given to pondering these days!

    It is surely true that conservatives have more of the past-nostalgic in them than Young Turks and liberal firebrands, though it might be argued that what they attempt to conserve from the past is a culture that was in fact more responsibly future-time-oriented.

    In other words, a conservative will say that unless we maintain the sound principles and familiar folkways that have served us well in the past, the future will suffer.

    But you are quite right that this can go too far, into an ossified conservative nostalgia that can no longer adapt to a changing world. There is very little agreement, even within conservative ranks, about what the right balance is.

    Posted August 28, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  10. At ten minutes and nine seconds, the video went on about nine seconds too long and thus wasted my precious time.

    And I’ve now wasted another thirty seconds typing this comment.

    Boy am I frustrated!

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted August 28, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  11. Kevin Kim says

    Mr. Kaplan’s 11:38AM comment reminds me of something.

    One of my old profs, Father William Cenkner, used to pooh-pooh the tripartite “exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism” schema for understanding religious attitudes toward other religions, developed three or four decades ago (and still in use, though often in modified form) by Alan Race and John Hick. Fr. Cenkner’s complaint (not an exact quote): “In myself, I can be simultaneously exclusivistic about some things, inclusivistic about others, and pluralistic about yet others.”

    A similar critique may apply to Zimbardo’s six-part Pizza Pie Paradigm of temporal orientation. It’s a bit facile to speak of people having only one discrete orientation, after all. In myself, for example, I can simultaneously pine for “the good old days,” enjoy the juicy hamburger currently in my hands, and be excited about where I’m going next on my road trip. If what Zimbardo is really arguing for is something nuanced, such as, say, the concept of a “primary” orientation (thus allowing for subsidiary orientations), then I wish he had said as much.

    I’d like to see how effective Zimbardo’s schema is at consistently predicting sociocultural phenomena before I get behind it. Although the video mentions some demographic observations on a limited scale (e.g., measuring tendencies and figuring out the predominant cultural characteristics of a given city), based on Zimbardo’s 30 years of research, his talk focused more on analysis than on prediction.

    I’m also doubtful about that “Sicilian poet” exchange, in which the poet supposedly claims that Sicilian dialect includes no future verb tense. I call BS on the idea that the lack of a given verb tense indicates the lack of the corresponding temporal concept, and the all-seeing, all-knowing Wikipedia seems to back me up. Sicilians have ways to refer to the future that don’t involve a simple future tense. With that in mind, “That’s why nothing gets done [in Sicily]” becomes a hollow punchline.

    The full-length version (a little over 41 minutes) of the Zimbardo video is here. I didn’t immediately realize that Zimbardo was the developer of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (see here).

    Posted August 28, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    That’s a good point, Kevin.

    One could describe a “configuration space” with various axes extending from zero, corresponding to each of Zimbardo’s proposed psychological attributes. A heuristic analysis might then involve, for example, asking about where a particular society was located along the future-time-orientation axis, independently of the others.

    But I don’t think the punchline is so hollow; the point is that a low score on the future-time orientation axis makes it harder to get things done in an orderly way, and the fact that the simple future tense doesn’t exist in Sicilian (despite there being conventions for expressing thoughts about the future) could, I think, plausibly be seen as correlated with that.

    How would you set up a test of Zimbardo’s model’s predictive power?

    Posted August 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  13. Kevin Kim says

    Not sure. I’d probably need to know more about his research methodology and results. With three decades of data to wade through, that might take some time.

    Posted August 29, 2010 at 3:57 am | Permalink
  14. JK says

    Meanwhile, and just in time:


    Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  15. JK says


    Posted September 2, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink