2020 seems like it has lasted something like 40 years so far. Every month, every week, sometimes even every day seems to bring some new nightmare. My home, Oregon, is virtually on fire, and the Air Quality rating through most of Portland has been staying at levels marked dangerous or hazardous or avoid for days, my job sent me home because the smoke was so thick in our sealed offices that people were coughing. This is on top of almost 100 days of protests against police brutality and racism, which has resulted from a slew of police atrocities being revealed.
Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and the time passed so slowly. He had figured out that a single hour on the skeet-shooting range with people like Havermeyer and Appleby could be worth as much as eleven-times-seventeen years.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
At this rate, it feels like we will practically live forever. There are 2 months or so until the election, and it feels as though there are another 40 years to go.
But all this makes me reflect on our perception of time. At the smallest meaningful interval of time there is something called Planck time. It is equal to 10-43 seconds, the time it would take a photon travelling at the speed of light to cross a distance equal to the Planck length. Which is similarly the smallest meaningful distance: roughly equal to 1.6 x 10-35 m or about 10-20 times the size of a proton. It seems strange, or illogical, that at some point the resolution goes no longer. Yet again, it is not turtles all the way down, but at a quantum level, everything orderly and logical about the universe seems to break down in a kind of orderly unpredictable chaos. But this smallest unit of time is not really meaningful to a human being. We can observe a grain of sand, and we can look at a handful of sand and pick out individual grains and see that a handful is made up of such things. But a handful of time would be an amorphous blob at that level assuredly. Our brains can recognize very small units of time, especially in hearing, and use them to localize things or determine direction, but it’s not conscious.
In emergencies people believe that “time slows down” but research has shown that it in fact doesn’t. We talk about things moving in slow motion, but the effect seems to be more that because you are so stressed, your brain just remembers more snapshots. We are ignoring tons of data and input al the time in our lives, but in highly stressful situations we essentially store more photos.
I think this is the secret of 2020, all the stress of crazy events is making us remember all the interstitial points between big events. And normally, in political time, things happen weeks or months apart that we care about. There is some large scandal or something, but for the last several years, and particularly since COVID emerged onto the scene, there have been scandals and revelations and new data and new models almost every day, and all of them important and stress-inducing.
Portraying this in writing can be difficult. Characters often will comment on the slowness of time or a slow summer, but this feels like telling not showing. But showing “slow time” seems equally untenable, because readers will often not have the patience to slog through minutely detailed events, reflective of the way our brains might record such a stressful time.
I do fear though that we face a possible singularity in November, that we could in a sense live forever in a kind of slow-motion horror show that never seems to cease.