The Never-Ending Now

Instagram. Snapchat. Twitter. Facebook. You name it. We live in a “Never-Ending Now.”

A story for you: Earlier this year, I attended a comedy show at The Stand with a handful of digital natives (my term for the post-millennial generation). The comedy club was across town so we split an Uber SUV. I sat in the back. You know… all the way in the back of the SUV, where the seats are so narrow that you have to do gymnastics just to fit back there.

From the moment the driver hit the gas pedal, everybody was on their phones. From the back, I watched my peers tap and text with ferocious intensity. As we sat in traffic and drove through Manhattan, one thing stuck out: the people in front of me only consumed content created within the last 24 hours. No exceptions.

The structure of our social media feeds place us in a Never-Ending Now. It sucks us into a temporal myopia. Like hamsters running on a wheel, we live in an endless cycle of ephemeral content consumption — a merry-go-round that spins faster and faster but never goes anywhere.

Consider the time-bias of our major social media feeds:

  • Snapchat: 24 Hours or Less

  • Instagram Stories: 24 Hours or Less

  • The Instagram Feed: 3 Days or Less

  • Facebook: 5 Days or Less

  • Twitter: 2 Days or Less

2018 isn’t the end of history. Rather, the human story — from our Neanderthal roots, to our Paleolithic ancestors, to the Roman Empire, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the here and now — is still unfolding. Stuck in the fury of social media, we’re swept up in dizzying chaos like leaves in a gale force wind. We’re trapped in a Never-Ending Now — blind to our place in history, engulfed in the present moment, overwhelmed by the slightest breeze of chaos.

Crucially, the people I admire most live outside the Never-Ending Now.

Two examples:

  1. When I interviewed Morgan Housel, he advised reading more history and less news.

  2. During a recent lunch with a successful investor, he spoke exclusively about American history and the cyclicality of markets.

Don’t get me wrong… I admire the creativity of my young peers. They act intuitively. I love their enthusiasm, their optimism, and their starry eyed belief that anything is possible.

And yet, like a fish in water, they’re blind to their information environment. As Marshall McLuhan wrote:

“Societies have been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication… Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes… Men are never aware of the ground rules of their environmental systems or cultures… All media works us over completely… and leaves no part of us untouched, unaffected, and unaltered. The medium is the message.”

You are what you consume. End of story. Here’s Tim Wu writing in The Attention Merchants:

“Any and all information that one consumes—pays attention to—will have some influence… As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.”

The good news is this: it has never been easier to access ideas from other time periods too. On YouTube, you’ll find interviews from the 1950s, movies from the 1970s, and music videos from the 1990s. By changing our consumption patterns, we can counter-act the time bias of our social media feeds and escape the Never-Ending Now.

Soon, I will experiment with “atemporality.” For days or weeks at a time, I will escape the present moment and only consume content published in a different decade. For example, if I want to learn about the 1970s, all my media consumption will consist of books, videos, and interviews published in the 1970s. By doing so, I’ll embody the mindset of people in a bygone era and gain new perspectives on the here and now.

Everything has been said before. The big concepts aren’t new. You’ll find them in old works. Nassim Taleb calls this the Lindy Effect: “The longer something has been in print, the longer it will remain in print and the higher value it is.”

With just a couple taps, we can transform our relationship with time, ignite our sense of history and escape the Never-Ending Now.

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