Defrosting the future

Jun 25, 2024By Cristina Pozzi
Cristina Pozzi

Alice: How long is forever?
White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.

LEWIS CARROLL, Alice in wonderland

It took me a while between putting offs and excuses to tackle this new edition of Futurethics. Normally as soon as I finish writing a newsletter, I immediately start having a thousand ideas about the next one. I take some time to think about it, I already throw some notes, I draw up a list and then in the end I see them all there, the ideas, which try to emerge, get noticed more than the others and get the better of them. [For those who are fans, an image is enough to understand what I mean: “Pick me, Pick me!” My ideas would say if they could talk just like Donkey who wants to accompany Shrek on his adventure.]

But then, after a few weeks of apprehension, on February 24, 2022, all those ideas faded away, and, as if frozen, they stopped jumping and waving in front of my eyes. How do you think of anything else? Due to an inequitable geographic and geopolitical mechanism, this war worries us much more than the many others in progress in the world [and I will not go into the merits of the fact that we should have equal indignation in the face of ALL wars]. This one hits us straight like a punch in the stomach and prevents us from looking up.

I guess it is a feeling that not only I have experienced since on March 12 even Tim Berners Lee, the creator of the web, replaced the awaited letter that he should have shared on the future of the web on the 33rd anniversary of his birth, with a fundraiser for Ukraine.

And yet, even if all ideas ran away at some point, I realized that one of the topics of my reflection remained timidly at hand. Discreetly and on tiptoe it whispered in my ear: “The future is frozen. Again”.

Let’s start from here then and take up some of the reflections made with Andrea Dusi on the subject in our latest book. [1]

The future is frozen.

Time is suspended in an eternal present.

We live constantly waiting for something to arrive, a faint ray of sunshine capable of warming the cold that blocked us there, in a timeless place.

That’s how we experienced the first lockdown linked to the covid-19 pandemic and, some of us more and some others less, how we are experiencing the tragic news about the war between Russia and Ukraine.

We await and postpone the future that is unthinkable in its infinite possibilities when an event so great and so impactful is redefining its boundaries every moment that passes.

“Time doesn’t exist!” some physicists peremptorily affirm, taking to the extreme consequences the theories that have revolutionized our conception over the last century. And yet, its weight in such a moment makes itself very well felt. Whether it exists or not in the field of physics, right now does not matter because the way we perceive time defines profound aspects of human nature and the way we evolved to live on this planet. It is worth talking about.

Kant, Leibnitz and quantum physics

The theme of time is fundamental for us human beings and it is no coincidence that to answer the great questions of philosophy about reality and how we know it we had to deal with this concept. For Kant, for example, time and space are two categories in our mind, two lenses through which we conceive and see the world around us, and which consequently interfere with the perception of the world. In this sense, time and space are a filter that does not allow us to know things as they really are, adapting them to the forms of our intuition. I have already said [2] that, drawing a reductive parallel with respect to the extraordinary complexity that characterizes our brain, and the human being, space and time would in this sense be the operating system of thought. And if for Kant space is not conceivable without the time to be perceived, for Leibniz instead time and space are not conceivable except by inserting another pillar into the equation: matter, paving the way for insights that evolve up to modern quantum physics. [3]

Personal time

At this moment, however, we are especially interested in the phenomenological aspect of time. How we perceive it and how it affects our lives: we could say our sense of time.

And in these two years our sense of time has really been tested.

Instants that last an eternity expanding for anguish, moments of great emotions pleasant, and years that pass in a moment, without history alternate following the sobs of events that suddenly change our way of living, working, communicating, travelling.

In the first lockdown, spent alone, I lived in a kind of fast pace made up of strict rules and habits that helped me not to lose heart. 6:30 wake up, 30 minutes of physical movement while the roomba cleans one part of the house, breakfast and shower while the roomba goes wild in the other, 9:00 20 minute good morning meeting with colleagues, work, 13: 00 lunch on the terrace and reading until 2.00 pm, work until around 7.00 pm and again some reading outdoors, dinner, TV series and go to sleep. In this well-defined rhythm, I inserted all my activities, measuring their duration much more precisely than usual. I remember one day I made a shocking discovery: apparently emptying a full dishwasher doesn’t take me more than 3 minutes. Oh yes, only 3. Yet, I like it so little that it seems like an eternity, and I often postpone it telling myself that I’m late. The fact is that time is a measure of our thoughts. The way we feel it is influenced by many factors, primarily by emotions. Each of us lives an inner life made up of completely personal times, dictated by the things we like, those that bore us or that annoy us.

It is normal that this very aspect of time has emerged as a collective discussion at a time when the whole world, which used to be in such a hurry, has found itself on a hiatus.

Reflection on time, even personal time, is not a novelty in the contemporary world. Indeed, we could say that it has been a real constant in the attempt to investigate the world that has developed since the industrial revolution. Right then, in fact, a huge change took place: our society moved from an organic-based to a mineral-based economy. An organic-based economy depends on raw materials and energy from the earth such as silk, linen, cotton, wood, leather, skins, wool, charcoal … Raw materials and energy sources that are renewed over time and which are consequently limited by production cycles that the earth and nature dictate to us.

Those cycles and those rhythms characterize the whole society by marking the hours, calendars, seasons. A mineral-based economy, on the other hand, is based on non-renewable but abundant raw materials such as iron and hard coal. This step has allowed the company to completely change the pace, its rhythms, the way of life. Electricity lengthens the days, work is punctuated by machines, cities move away from nature and its rhythms, clocks are spread to allow us to measure even the smallest fragment of time and mark our actions during the day.

All this has the most disparate effects on the psychology of individuals and on families and society in general.

Thus, our time-filter acts as an instrument of order, as a shared and collective image that not only measures but puts into perspective and gives meaning to what we feel and do.

The art and literature of the contemporary world have faced in many ways this relationship with the changing time, this acceleration that seems to overwhelm us.

From work in the factory in which time is subtracted from the power of the worker who undergoes production time instead of guiding it as the craftsman did that we find in the reflections of Marx and Simone Weil, to the iconic image of Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin where man is an integral part of a gear. From the avant-gardes and movements such as Futurismo that make this fast time a myth to be pursued, to poetry and literature that modify the linear time of the narrative to explore the inner discourse with its breaks and temporal leaps that follow only the mental connections of our synapses.

Thus, for example, Emily Dickinson expressed herself in one of her poems:

By Clocks, ’twas Morning, and for Night

The bells at Distance called –

But Epoch had no basis here

For Period exhaled. (1159)

And the future?

But even if we are immersed in this frenetic, crazy, and subjective time of our society, the future has remained one of the pillars of time. Even if too little and often unconsciously, what we imagine may happen in the future influences and guides us.

At least this is the case in times that with a little effort we can call normality.

While now, in the face of war, as well as in the midst of the pandemic, the future is frozen and there is no way to think about it.

In our book we tried to graph what happened to the future and our ability to imagine it, in the case of the lockdown.

SOURCE: After, Il mondo che ci attende. CRISTINA POZZI, ANDREA DUSI, Bompiani, 2021

In the vertical axis we have the time that passes: at first, during the initial emergency, in the transformation and after the covid-19. In the horizontal axis, on the other hand, we have our collective vision of the future, the possible futures that we evaluate and consider in our daily actions, the horizons.

We immediately notice how the initial moment is precisely what deprives us of the future and leaves us stunned in a world in pause. In this phase we tend to project the situation in the emergency phase into the future and imagine that it will remain so, that this is the new reality. A tragic situation also described by the words of Camus: «In truth, everything became present for them; it must be said, the plague had deprived every one of the faculty of love and also of friendship; love, in fact, requires a bit of the future, and for us there were only moments». [4]

And again: «The plague had covered everything: there were no longer individual destinies, but a collective history, the plague, and feelings shared by all.» [5]

A very strong psychological impact, a sudden, collective, and shared feeling of mourning. The breaking of our securities, of our anchors, the loss of our loved ones, distant relationships, an endless present in front of us, a time without time and without hope.

The individual merges into the community and forms of solidarity emerge between neighbors, strangers and distant friends and relatives.

So many of us if we think back to the two years that have passed we find ourselves confusing the many days all the same, without history, and to perceive as if 2019 were yesterday.

A time like the one we find in the words of poets and poets like Dickinson, Montale, T.S. Eliot: waiting for those slivers of time, those moments that can come from any element of nature or object. Moments of enlightenment that make sense of a meaningless time.

A new time, a new world: notes for future reflections

But then we move on to the next stage, something starts to move, and a lot of news arrives. Of these, whether positive or negative, some are destined to remain, others will be abandoned as soon as the emergency ends.

This is the decisive moment, the transformative one, in which everything (or almost everything) seems possible to us, to really define what will be.

“Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes,” wrote Virginia Woolf between 1937 and 1939.

Are we in a similar situation? Of course history does not repeat itself and the pandemic is a very different animal from war. And if they have in common this effect of freezing the future as they unfold, they have a characteristic that differentiates them: usually a pandemic creates division and mistrust and leaves behind a fragmented society. The war, on the other hand, once it is over leaves hope. A precious feeling for which we must fight, every day, even now that we are in this seemingly clear-cut darkness.

«Hope in the dark», says the title of a wonderful book by Rebecca Solnit [6], a darkness that opens up many possibilities that we can explore with the power of hope. And time in all its dimensions is a fundamental element that helps to nourish hope and give meaning to our lives. It is no coincidence that many of us, just in the face of a change and a break in time, are today faced with new search, previously dormant, which was waiting to return to the surface to ferry us towards a new world.

What we will do with these reflections is up to us alone.

[1] After. Il mondo che ci attende (Bompiani, 2021)


[3] For those who’d like to know more I recommend this beautiful book: TEMPO, Il sogno di uccidere Chrònos. GUIDO TONELLI, Feltrinelli (2021).

[4] ALBERT CAMUS, La peste, Bompiani (32 edizione), 2013

[5] Ibidem