The time out of the sixth of intelligent machines – Quaderni d’Altri Tempi

If we want to understand a civilization, we must first look at the way it perceives time. Augustine of Hippo dedicated part of his to the time Confessionsas well as many passages of City of God, precisely because he understood that the Christian revolution entailed a radical transformation of this concept, and that it became necessary to accustom Christianity to the new idea of ​​a time oriented towards a future represented by the return of Christ, the advent of the Kingdom and the end of history, therefore also the time: The kingdom becomes timeless. Above all, it was necessary to break with the cyclical conception of time that had characterized the classical age, now derisively defined as “pagan”, according to which things are always destined to follow the same path, cyclical like the seasons: birth, growth, apogee , aging and death. Thus the pagans stoically interpreted the fall of Rome; but for Augustine it was not a matter of envisioning a new empire that would rise in place of the now-condemned Roman one, but rather of radically replacing the idea of ​​the “city of man” with the “city of God.” The civilization of the medieval West had a very peculiar relationship with time, where on the one hand the cyclical nature of the seasons was prominent, on the other hand everything was stretched towards eternity, starting with the great construction sites of cathedrals, buildings that span centuries.

How our concept of time is changing is one of the questions that has long haunted Helga Nowotny, a sociologist of science with a recent past as president of the European Research Council (ERC, The European Research Council), a body appointed to define European scientific research policies, but above all chairman of the International Society for the Study of Time. Nowotny had dedicated a milestone to this topic, Own time (1980), translated into Italian with the title Private time. The origin and structure of the concept of time, although the German term better refers to what Einsteinian theory had termed “real time”, that is, time according to the angle of view of an observer located at a particular moment in space-time, which is not necessarily coincident with that of other observers. The text, which analyzed the transformation of the concept of time in the postmodern era, under the blows of technological and social acceleration, reached an important conclusion, namely the replacement of the future with what Nowotny called the “expanded present”, i.e. present endlessly projected into the future, as the term “post-modern” itself implies, implying an essential inability to think about it beyond the cage of modernity. Argument raised some years ago in the essay Own time. Revisited (2017), where the theme was the change in the concept of time produced by the interaction with digital devices. With his latest book God’s machines (in original In AI We Trust), brought to Italy by LUISS University Press in the translation of Andrea Daniele Signorelli, Nowotny thus creates an ideal trilogy. God’s machines in fact, it starts again from a question about how the concept of time changes in the Anthropocene:

“How does the comparison with geological times, with long-term atmospheric progress or the decomposition time of microplastics and toxic waste affect the temporality of our daily lives? How does AI affect the temporal dimension of our mutual relations? Are we witnessing the emergence of something we could call ‘ digital time’, which today has slipped into the well-known and embedded temporal hierarchy of physical, biological and social times? ”.

To answer these questions, Nowotny starts from a basic assumption: technology changes man and, even more, the technological imaginary changes the way a civilization defines itself. This was the case at the time of the great positivist narrative of infinitely extended progress towards the future, essentially identified in the series of industrial revolutions; but the great narrative – notes Nowotny – has not disappeared at all, it has only changed skin. What it represents today is primarily the dream of artificial intelligence and the possibility of developing “predictable” algorithms capable of controlling the future, and from this time dimension removing its ownership of terra incognita. But this very goal, which the author defines as illusory, confirms that we are still immersed in the “extended present”: since thinking about controlling the future means taming it, depriving it of its ability to question the present, to surprise us through the unknown. This is what Jill Lepore, quoted by Nowotny, suggested in her book If so (2020), a history of the first attempts to develop predictive algorithms in post-war America: “Amazon, Google, Facebook and all the others collect your data to feed their algorithms: they want to transform your past into your future”. This will be all the more true in Mirrorworld, as the metaverse of the future has been defined, that is, the immersive virtual environment where our personal experience will be translated through a digital avatar.

The Mirrorworld is the ultimate goal of this project by the digital giants of Silicon Valley, a world where the unknown of the physical world is eliminated because everything happens in a digital ecosystem controlled by algorithms that will already know in advance what we is informed about. buying. to do, to vote. However, Mirrorworld will also be a world where we will be led to build new relationships with other intelligent beings, namely the algorithms themselves.
Nowotny refers to Edward Ashford Lee’s proposal to define artificial intelligence as “digital living beings” (LDB, Living digital beings), which, although not self-aware, are nevertheless endowed with a certain autonomy, the ability to learn from the interaction with the system in which they operate, and of replicability. From the mutual interactions between humans and digital living beings “new and complex forms of life could emerge”. However, this implies becoming aware of the new forms of relationship between the biological and digital worlds that are already emerging today: an example proposed by Nowotny concerns the “species leap” made by Covid, which originates from a pandemic agent in the biological world has spawned an infodemic in the Mirrorworld, i.e. a viral spread of often false, incorrect or manipulated information, which in turn has had serious consequences in the real world. These new cases of contamination they lead to a strong awareness of the new digital ecosystem in which we spend a good part of our lives.
The fact that there is still too much talk about a “political” control of technological acceleration is, for the author, the indicator of a very dangerous trend, namely a belief in the ability of intelligent technology to self-regulate and improve human civilization, which – it must be added – is perhaps a new variant of the myth of the “invisible hand” destined to self-regulate the market. Again, we actually witness the conviction that politics is no longer sufficient to manage the exponential technological change processes, where the algorithm is instead capable of – also against the background of mysterious self-learning mechanisms, which represent a real “box variety”. “where man cannot enter – to better manage a complex society. This automation bias it is the prejudice that pushes us to regard the choices made by machines as superior to human choices because they are less fallible and less prone to discretionary choices. But for Nowotny, this is a serious mistake, which brings us back to the positivist myth of the existence of “scientific” laws capable of regulating human behavior, which we thought we had left at the beginning of it the twentieth century. Here, however, we come back to believing that if left to their jobs, the machines will be able to subtract big data present in the digital ecosystem of laws through which one can not only understand the behavior of human society but also direct it towards its continuous improvement.

This “confidence in quantification”, Nowotny notes, is not new because it was shared even before the positivism of the Enlightenment. Among its distortions is the case, mentioned in the book, of the “quantum of happiness”, a concept invented by the Scottish agronomist John Sinclair to measure the happiness of a state by adding the happiness of its individuals in accordance with the principle of enlightenment according to which the purpose of the state is to ensure common happiness (public congratulations). If we think today of the many indicators designed to measure a nation’s happiness or well-being, we realize that—no matter how noble such intentions—reliance on quantification has by no means failed. And this very thing in terms of not having failed is the myth of progress, that is, of the indefinite perfection of man, an ambition embodied by the great technological giants and their ideologues, who come to hope that the guide to this process of improvement is assumed by machines: this is the case (among many) of James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, who recently converted to the machine faith and who hoped to replace the Anthropocene with the Novacene, the era of intelligent machines that will take the place of humans because they are better able to achieve what appears to be the ultimate goal of the universe, the efficient processing of information (cf. Lovelock, 2020).
Helga Nowotny’s skepticism is strong on this point, all the more so after the pandemic crisis. The very case of Covid has shown that our main problem lies not so much in forecasts as in decisions: if the scenario of a viral pandemic had long been foreseen, the inability to cope with it shows the inherent limits of our civilization. Those who believe that to overcome them, all the more reason, we must rely on intelligent machines because the question is political and cultural: political because it concerns our ability to make choices for the future in an age of extended present, would Be incorrect; cultural, because it has to do with our perception of time, increasingly contracted, to counter which according to the author of the “cathedral mentality”. In a complex system, uncertainty grows as complexity increases, and this also applies to algorithms:

“Rethinking what progress means in the digital age confronts us with uncertainty about where our interactions with digital machines will lead us. Reality has forced us to abandon the fantasy of human dominance and complete control over what we do and plan ; instead, it invites us to cultivate the ability to accept uncertainty”.


  • Jill Lepore, If so. How Simulmatics Corporation invented the futureLiveright Publishing Corporation, New York, 2020.
  • James Lovelock, Novacene. The age of hyperintelligenceBollati Boringhieri, Turin, 2020.
  • Helga Nowotny, Private time. The origin and structure of the concept of timeIl Mulino, Bologna, 1993.
  • Helga Nowotny, Own time. Revisitedin An orderly messCentral European University Press, Budapest, 2017.

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