Close-up on Culture: Back to the future

Marty: Wait a minute Doc, are you telling me you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?

Doc: The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?

While Marty McFly in the famous comical sci-fi movie Back to the Future needed an, admittedly very stylish, time machine to go back and forth from the future to the present and back to the past, modern humans seem to switch effortlessly between different time continua. Through developments in modern day society, we have become experienced time travellers.

Individualised space-time continua

In this age of deregulation and individualisation, time has also become an individual business. You can for example order your groceries 24/7 on the internet or do your work at 4am at night due to the flexible ‘Nieuwe Werken’. Not to mention the growth of technological power over space-time, which gives us the ability to choose the time of youth or elderly. Objective social standards for measuring time are increasingly fading: people choose their own timetables.

Expanding universe, wormholes and different speeds on the same gear

This individualisation of time has all kinds of consequences for our experience of time. French philosopher and sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky describes in his famous essay ‘Time against time’ these changes. First of all, he states, the present is extending. He characterises contemporary society as a society of fashion, ruled by the cult of the new. Furthermore, electronic and computerized media have made it possible to send and exchange information in real time, creating a sense of simultaneity and immediacy. This modern day wormholes create compressed efficient time which makes all forms of waiting and slowness seem unacceptable. On the other hand living in the present means living in the moment and experience as intense as possible as bodily experience.. And so we are shifting different time speeds on the same gear. You can go out dancing, losing yourself in the music, while continuously have to check your phone for your whatsapp group conversation, because otherwise your friends will be at your door within twelve seconds according to this funny commercial for a phone provider currently circulating on Dutch television.

The black holes of past and future

But does the contemporary individual really live in the state of ‘temporal weightlessness’ of the present? According to Lipovetsky, there is no escape to the black holes of past and future. We have lost neither past or future, but formed totally new relationships to these dimensions. First of all he states ‘the more our societies are dedicated followers of fashion, focused on the present, the more they are accompanied by a groundswell of memory’. Nowadays, there is an obsession with vintage objects, soon there will be no activity, object, or locality, that does not have the honours of a museum and through the developments of new technologies our achieves are rapidly extending. We have moved from the realm of the finite to the infinite, Lipovetsky thus states.


While the present reigns and the past is extending into infinity, there is also a different attitude against the future. Contemporary society has moved from dreaming about the future to a more pragmatic attitude where foreseeing and forestalling possible problems is key. Trendwatchers like the famous Lidwei Edelkoort or the colour forecaster David Shah should help us plan and prevent bridges to tomorrow and strict regimes like eating healthily, taking physical exercise or stop smoking connect the present inseparably to the future. And so, in an age of seemingly ephemerality there is increasingly emphasis on durability.

Real time

Thus we´ve come to a completely new concept of time, which maybe best can be characterized as ´la durée´, an concept created by the famous French philosopher Henri Bergson. He uses this concept of duration to make a difference between time as abstract measure for practical purposes, and how we really experience time. In ´la durée´ past present and future coexist, and above all interact with each other. An interesting example on how modern society leads to Bergsons concept of duration, is offered by Adam Ostrow in his 2011 TedTalk on how our social media accounts can live on after our deaths. Due to the fact we create an enormous amount of content on twitter, facebook and youtube, and new technologies which make it possible to analyze an entire life´s worth of content, Orstrow states in the near future it´s gonna be possible for our digital personae to continu to interact in the real world long after we´re gone. So media for which real time communication in the present is key, are creating infinite memorabilia, which provide a future bridge to eternity.


Back to the future

And so the statement of Lipovetsky makes more and more sense: We live in a time where it´s ’ time against time, future against present, present against future, present against present, present against past´. And more then ever, in these times of ´la durée’, we need just like Marty McFly to keep in check the space-time continuum. Just like Marty McFly we need to our to learn our own lessons to deal in a right way with this new conceptualisation of time. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take us three movies to do so.

Further Read

– Lipovetsky, Gilles. (2005) ‘Time Against Time; Or The Hypermodern Society’, in: Hypermodern Times. London: Polity: 29-71

– Websites where you can manage your online presence after your death: or in Dutch

This blogpost is also published on TedxAmsterdam

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