Time is a funny old thing…

Today I am rather short on time- the work I have to do is beginning to mount up despite (and partially because) of a long weekend. To most people this is a perfectly good reason to put up an apologetic cop-out of a post to prevent them having to work on it, but for me, it is a perfectly good excuse for my bloodymindedness to take over, so I thought I might write something about time.
As such a strange and almost abstract concept as it is, time can be viewed from a number of perspectives- the physical sense, the thermodynamic sense, and the human sense are the three obvious ones that spring to mind. To a physicist, time is a dimension much like width and length, and is far from unique- in fact there is a large sector of theoretical physics open to the idea that in the big bang there were many millions of dimensions, only 4 of which (3 spacial and one temporal) opened up into the rest of the universe, the other dimensions only existing on a microscopic, atomic scale (which might explain why the quantum world is so plain weird. Hey- I’m no physicist, and the web can probably tell you more). The really special thing about time compared to spacial dimensions to a physicist (among a long list, that are confusing and difficult to describe), is that it is the only dimension with an obvious direction. People often talk of ‘the arrow of time’, but the idea of any other dimension having an arrow is only a sort of arbitrary point of reference (north & south, up & down are only relative to our own earth and so are merely convenient reference points. This idea of time having an irreversible arrow annoys a lot of physicists as there appears to be little, fundamentally, that means we couldn’t travel in time in the other direction- the theory of relativity, for example, shows how fluid time can be. The idea of time’s direction has a lot to do with thermodynamics, which is where the second perspective of time comes from.
Really I am using the word thermodynamic very loosely, as what I am really thinking of is more to do with the psychological arrow of time. To quickly paraphrase what I mean by thermodynamics, the second law of thermodynamics states that the universe’s level of entropy, or randomness, will always increase or stay the same, never decrease, because a more random, chaotic system is more stable. One way of thinking of this is like a beach- the large swathes of sand can be arranged in a huge number of configurations and still seem the same, but if there are lots of sandcastles over it, there is a lot less randomness. One can seemingly reverse this process by building more sandcastles, making the universe more ordered, but to do this requires energy which, on a universal level, increases the universe’s entropic level. It is for this reason that a smashed pot will always have been preceded, but not followed by, the same pot all in one piece.
The thing is, the psychological and thermodynamic arrows of time point in the same direction, and their link on one another is integral. Our whole view of the passing of time is influenced by the idea of events that have irrevocably ‘happened’ and are ‘over’, hence our eternal fascination with ‘what if’s’. We persistently worry about past mistakes, what could have been, and what things were like, but never can be- hence the popularity of historical stories, ruins, nostalgia and grumbling about teenagers. For a better explanation of the various ‘arrows of time’, try Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’- it is somewhat out of date now and it is fashionable now to think of it as overly simplistic, but it’s still a good source of a grounding in high-level physics
The final, and to me most interesting, perspective of time I want to talk about is deeply linked to the psychological arrow and our thoughts of the passing of time, but brings its own, uniquely relative, view- the human perspective (notice how it is always people I seem to find the most interesting.) We humans view time in a way that, when thought about, paints a weirdly fluid portrait of the behaviour of time. There is never enough time to work, too much time spent waiting, not enough time spent on holidays or relaxing, too much time spent out of work, too little time spent eating the cake and too much spent washing up. There are the awkward pauses in conversation that seem to drag on for an eternity, especially when they come just after the moment when the entire room goes silent for no accountable reason, enabling everyone to hear the most embarrassing part of your conversation. There are those hours spent doing things you love that you just gobble up, revelling in your own happiness, and the bitter, painful minutes of deep personal pain.
Popular culture and everyday life often mentions or features these weirdly human notions of time being so relative to the scenario- Albert Einstein himself described relativity thus: “When you are talking to a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you have your hand on a bar of red-hot iron, a second seems like an hour”. In fact, when you think about it, it is almost as if time appears to be a living thing, at least in the context of our references to it. This, I think anyway, is the nub of the matter- time is something that we encounter, in its more thermodynamic form, every day of our lives, and just like pet owners will tend to anthropomorphise their pets’ facial expressions, so the human race has personified time in general conversation (well, at least in the western world- I cannot speak for anywhere non English-speaking as a certainty). Time is almost one of the family- ever-present, ever-around, ever-referred to, until it becomes as human as a long-lost friend, in its own little way.
Finally, on the subject of time, Mr Douglas Adams: “Time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so”

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Since when the internet become alive?

Looking back over my previous posts (speaking of which by the way: WOO DOUBLE FIGURES), I realised just how odd my way of referring to the internet is. The internet, by archaic terms, doesn’t really even exist- there is nothing physical to show its presence. One can argue about the billions of computers and servers which connect to and contribute to it, but that’s a bit like saying that the story of a novel exists by virtue of the book having pages- the story itself is something… more than that. The same is true for the internet which is, when boiled down, just one huge mass of information- nothing more, nothing less. And yet, from my first posts in which I introduced myself to the web, I referred to the internet itself. When you think about it, the level to which the internet community has made the internet itself seem human goes far beyond just normal personification- the internet does not just represent a figure, it has, over the years of its existence, managed to give itself a personality. It has clearly defined ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, far beyond a simple average view of the human population. In my home country of Great Britain, for example, the majority of voters at each election vote Conservative, and such views are held by many people across the world, especially in America- the source of the main bulk of internet traffic. And yet, the internet’s political stance appears very liberal- it dislikes racism, is heavily supportive of freedom of speech and information, and dislikes privacy controls and regulations on itself. The internet also appears to like computer games, science, especially computing (and be of above-average intelligence in these matters too) and hate the likes of Stephanie Meyer, Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black, but one trait is predominant, and has almost become the defining feature of the modern internet- it likes to have a laugh. A large proportion of my Facebook traffic, for instance, is people sending me links of funny stuff from everyday life that other people have posted, and there is a recurrent joke that the internet could be basically split into two parts- porn, and pictures of cats looking simultaneously cute and hilarious. This set of priorities is very prevalent when studying the aims of internet groups such as Anonymous- quite a good description of them (and incidentally a link to a quality series of videos) can be found here: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/anonymous, and I recommend you watch it. Their aims appear based around a similar set of liberal and ‘for teh lulz’ priorities.
Now, just sit back for a second and absorb this simple fact- the internet, essentially a large collection of information contributed to in some way by the vast majority of the human, has managed to develop its own personality and opinions. Furthermore, these opinions are held, as a rule, by the vast majority of the internet community (excluding the people, if they can be called such, who comment below youtube videos), even though these represent the views of a non-majority group in the real world (although feel free to debate the extent of non-majority). Now, ask yourself this- HOW IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT’S HOLY DID THAT HAPPEN!?!?!?! The very concept of creating such a personality could never have occurred to the web pioneers, the likes of Tim Berners-Lee and the CERN team who aided the process, and yet it has happened. Swathes of the internet may be devoid of such views, and there are a series of internet counter-cultures (the conspiracy theorists, for example, or the ‘vast uninformed panics’ that erupt whenever there is a major health scare), but the internet as a rule appears to have predominant characteristics THAT ARE INCONSISTENT WITH THOSE OF THE VAST POPULATION OF PEOPLE WHO CONTRIBUTE TO IT.
Normally I like my posts to have a conclusion behind me, and several of my instincts are fighting to explain about the kind of bored teenagers who populate the web for much of the time etc. etc., but right now I really don’t want to. I honestly think that the way this has happened is truly amazing, and from a psychological/behaviouroligical/ sociological perspective it is certainly incredibly interesting- I could fill a paper describing it. But, for now, I’m just going to sit back and revel in what humanity has done with its greatest invention. And try and think of a suitable way to conclude this post…