Leonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Vision
Hidden in Time
To celebrate its 10th anniversary at the beginning of 2014, the geniuses at Facebook dreamed up an audacious and complicated project: create a retrospective video montage for every Facebook user. It took them all of 25 days to get the job done. On February 4—the very date on which thefacebook.com launched a decade earlier—they shipped the finished products to Facebook’s more than 1 billion users. These “Look Back” videos were a smashing success, with more than 40% of users sharing their own videos with their friends. (You can find and edit yours at facebook.com/lookback.)
What the Look Back video presents is a highlight reel drawn from how Facebook is normally ordered (Facebook is now also making year-end review videos for its users). Each user’s personal timeline stretches down one’s profile page in reverse chronological order so that one can scroll all the way back to the start of one’s Facebook presence. (Actually, the timeline goes back beyond this date if something in your profile—like the date of your birth—precedes your arrival in the social network.) When a user dies, Facebook memorializes the user’s account, fixing and locking the timeline so that one’s friends—and possibly others—can view it indefinitely. If someone dies without a Facebook account, no one can create one for the deceased posthumously—instead, they must create a page or a group to memorialize the person. This means there are no Look Back videos for those who fail to plug themselves in to the social network.
Everyone who has ever been plugged in to Facebook has established a history. Even if a user deactivates an account, that user’s history is still there even though it remains hidden until reactivated. Dig down on the timeline of any individual user, and you will see their own personal chronology: you can move from their present into their past. If, however, you stay on the newsfeed (the common space, as it were), all you will see is what is happening right now, or at least what happened pretty recently. The commonplace viewing experience on Facebook offers a streaming view of the (near) present because the newsfeed organizes what is happening now (or just about). Return to the newsfeed five days from now and the stream of the present will be revised. The newsfeed is always current, unless someone intentionally disturbs the feed.
How do you disturb the feed? It’s pretty easy, actually. If you go back to an individual user’s timeline and scroll down to some past event or post (or otherwise search out a dated photo from one of their albums), then either “like” or comment on it, this past event or post or photo will resurrect in the news feed as if it were current. For those who share the common area (newsfeed) with that person, this artifact of bygone days is embedded within current happenings. Now—Now—Now—Now—Now becomes Now—Now—Now—8 Years Ago—Now—Now. I know a few people (and you know who you are [Renée]) who have turned disturbing the tyranny of the present into an art form: they select just the right photo or post from a friend’s less refined past and cause it to be distributed in their network of today. Convivial ridiculing ensues.
Whereas the Look Back obviously discloses that it is presenting the past in the view of the present, the “feed disturbance” causes temporal dissonance by sneaking the past into the present. Both of these phenomena are possible because Facebook holds on to the past. In fact, one could argue that Facebook never forgets: it retains everything (perhaps even those things you think you have deleted). Facebook is designed to continually run along with the “present” towards the “future” while archiving elapsed “presents” as the “past”. The “past” is retrievable in the “present”, but it doesn’t properly belong there.
In short, Facebook is a study in time. It is built as an enormous capacity to store histories and suggest interconnected meanings for those histories through its sophisticated algorithms. To establish an identity on Facebook is to plug in to a (seemingly) unlimited storehouse. In this storehouse, individual Facebook identities are preserved into perpetuity along with all the moments of connections that made those identities appear.
As interesting or disturbing as this might seem, what happens with time on Facebook bears a resemblance to what the pre-Facebook Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote about time, personal histories, and the memory of the inerasable you:
[Y]our whole life remains preserved for you; everything you have done and suffered is gathered together in your being. You may have forgotten it, yet it is still there. It may appear to you as a pale dream even when you do remember who you once were, did and thought. All this you still are (“The Comfort of Time,” 147).
On the one hand, most of us flee from being defined by who we once were, and not one of us wants to be held responsible for all she has said, done, or thought (just ask the executives at Sony Pictures). On the other hand, the many things we have lost throughout our lives haunt us: unfinished relationships, faded memories, joys desired too late. We often conceive of ourselves as strange hybrid products of pasts that we both do and do not want, and of futures that we both hasten to and shy away from. It can seem, thus, like the time of life is measured as a trial without end (Augustine, Confessions, X.28.39).
The Facebook manner of measuring time exacerbates this feeling. If you are not current, you do not exist… unless someone goes to find you and perhaps collects some piece of your past to deposit in the present. Facebook existence is enhanced and perpetuated according to the approval one receives in the common space of the newsfeed or (less effectively) the sheer quantity of newsfeed appearances. Every posting in the present pushes the past farther down the timeline even while the present posting is always threatened by the next series of present moments already appearing. Even though Facebook is a vast storehouse, it is one in which notoriety and repetitive self-announcement determine the substantiality of one’s presence.
This is why the difference between Facebook’s notion of time and the Christian notion of time that Karl Rahner contemplates is even more important than the resemblance they bear to one another. The most important distinction lies in this fact: no one prays to Facebook. Despite the sophistication of its programming, it remains an impersonal platform that does not, itself, know you even as it facilitates social connections between people who may or may not really know each other. Psalm 139 sounds like the beginning of a very miss-able dystopian thriller when Facebook becomes the addressee:
O [Facebook], you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O [Facebook], you know it altogether.
You beset me behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain it (Ps 139:1-6, RSV).
Facebook tracks you; it doesn’t know you. Its memory of what you have done and what has been done to you is so vast that it may seem as if it discerns your meaning, but in fact it is forever limited to analyzing patterns.
Contemplating the Christian meaning of time means coming to the truth that the one who holds the entire memory of your life, who binds who you have been to who you are and who carries this all forward into who you shall become, is the tripersonal God. The impersonal matrix mimics this God. He knows you.
This fundamental difference has everything to do with the issue of how to measure time. In reference to God, time is not measured according to a series of events that move continuously from the indeterminate future through the present into the fixed past. In reference to God, time is measured by eternity. But what is eternity? Eternity, in our own creaturely terms, is the correspondence between God’s knowing us and our own free response to God’s address. Rather than an unending stream of passing “now” moments where the doing and saying of new, up-to-date things determines “reality”, the Christian doctrine of eternity is concerned with the fullness of the response of a human life to the gift of life and call to communion that come from the God who creates all things, sustains all things, and moves all things. This means that what is eternal is what we each ultimately becomes in response to—as a response to—the God who ‘searches me and knows me.’ Eternity is thus dependent upon God’s relating to us and time is measured according to the degree to which the free decisions of a lifetime correspond with the final decision of who I become in relation to God (see again Rahner, 151 and 157). God knows us through his desire to create, redeem, and sanctify; through his absolute freedom to give for our own good; by his mercy. We come to know ourselves in time as we come to desire what God desires, participate in the freedom of what and how God gives, and move in the stream of his mercy. In the end, we are not fixed and locked into the chronology of what we have done but transformed by what God does for, with, and through us.
The Comfort of Time
To be only what we are today, at this moment, would be most distressing. Even more, if we were each responsible for holding ourselves together and establishing the content of the memorial for ourselves before our identity is fixed and locked, anxiety would rule the day. To exist for a time in a series of changes without end and, ultimately, without reason, rendered visible according to what appears in the ever-fleeting “present”, would push each of us toward the ultimate horizon of insignificance. If algorithms or the turning of calendar pages marked the meaning of our time, then we would be most pitiable of all. And how great, how unbearable the weight would be if we ever found ourselves in the position to make a definitive decision about ourselves once and for all, in a single moment. Angels alone bear this burden: we have time to make a decision about ourselves in relation to God.
God brings comfort to time because he both retains and perfects what we always have been. God does not just do this for us; God does this with us. Christian hope is both harsher and more beautiful than we typically imagine: for in him who knows us and has claimed us and seeks our own good, we shall come to claim and complete even those things that we are unable or unwilling to claim and complete in this “present” time. What’s more, the meaning of this “present” time is measured according to the fulfillment of who we shall become in him (1 Jn 3:2; cf. 1 Cor 13:12). Unlike Facebook time, our time does not move ceaselessly along the steady newsfeed conveyor belt that turns the future into the past through the mechanism of the present. There is an end to time in God, not just in the sense that there is a point at which time will be no more but also in that time itself has as its definitive referent in God who works unceasingly to draw his creation into full communion (see Rev 10:5-7).
Many of us feel the strain of time more acutely at the turning of the calendar year, when what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost presses upon our consciousness out of turn, while when we peer ahead to pitfalls and possibilities yet to come. Lest we think that we are carried along in a stream of impersonal quasi-realism powered by the machinations of fate, we should take comfort in remembering that we are each created in a world that is itself created through the knowing love of a tripersonal God who preserves us even when we lose ourselves. For good reason, then, Karl Rahner announces:
The comforting aspect of time! We do not lose anything but are always gaining. It is true that ultimately this is known only to the believer. But is it any the less true for this, and any the less the comfort of time? Life gathers itself together more and more, the more apparently the past lies behind us. The more it seems like that, the more we have in front of us. And when we arrive, we find our whole life and all its real possibilities, and the meaning of all the possibilities which had been given to us. There is not only a resurrection of the body but also a resurrection of time in eternity. This is not the remaining of an abstract subject, which continues to enjoy life, because it had at some time in the distant past behaved itself properly, but it is a changed and transfigured time. In it we are not, indeed, peasant or pope, poor or rich, but then one has not simply ‘been’ all this just to become something different now. One sees oneself completely now and is not merely someone receiving a pension for past services rendered, someone who now follows a different occupation. For in everything one has done in the past, one really did only one thing after all (even though it became part of a synthesis together with the many other things one did, a synthesis which characterizes it even in its fulfillment), viz. one tried to attain oneself completely, together with everything one had by nature and grace, and to make a complete transfer of this one total reality in believing love into the incomprehensible mystery of God. And this attempt has now completely succeeded. In all we experienced of it in our life, it always seemed to be successful only in part and bit by bit. We seemed always to land back again in ourselves, in our empty poverty, our total weakness and the miserable dilettantism of our love of God. What we seemed to have only succeeded with in a piecemeal fashion, even that seemed to be consumed again without trace in that demolition of our corporeal, earthly existence which we call our life proceeding towards death. But all this is only the darkness in which – as the common milieu of guilt and redemption, as the sphere of faith and despair – man must allow his life and himself to be hidden. Yet in it he is completely preserved. Eternity does not, properly speaking, come after time but rather is the fulfillment of time. Our eternity ripens out of time as the fruit in which, when it has fully grown, everything we were and became in this time is conserved (Rahner, 156-57).