Where Has the Decade Gone?
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
Katherine Miller has written an insightful, stream-of-conscious reflection on the nearly-over decade titled “The 2010s Broke Our Sense Of Time.”
The structure of the piece almost defies excerpting and I commend it to you in its entirety when, well, you have the time. But here’s a sampling:
This long and wearying decade is coming to a close, though, even if there’s no sense of an ending. People are always saying stuff like: Time has melted; my brain has melted; Donald Trump has melted my brain; I can’t remember if that was two weeks ago or two months ago or two years ago; what a year this week has been. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. Your Facebook feed won’t stop showing you a post from four days ago, about someone you haven’t seen in three years. The Office, six years after it ended, might be the most popular show in the United States. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. One high schooler dances to a Mariah Carey song from 2009 (“Why you so obsessed with me?”) in a video that loops in 15-second increments on TikTok; then other teens do it; then a high school dance team dances that dance to this Mariah Carey song as a gym full of teens sings along, in a video that loops in 15-second increments on TikTok. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. What was here yesterday no longer is.
The touch and taste of the 2010s was nonlinear acceleration: always moving, always faster, but torn this way and that way, pushed forward, and pulled back under. As the decade closes with an impeachment inquiry, Trump drags and twists the entire country through six turns each day.
There is a certain discordance in modern technology’s shifting of the sense of time. Then again, as Miller backhandedly acknowledges, this isn’t entirely new. But it’s not old, either.
There’s more than one kind of time. You have your minutes and seconds ticking away, grounded in the Earth’s rotation and orbit. Paradoxically, given the lament of melting time, we’ve never had such easy access to this kind of precision on the subject. Knowing the time is relatively new to the human experience; the first cheap, reliable watch wasn’t made until the late 1860s, nor were there international time zones until 1884. But if you leave London and land in Los Angeles today, your phone will adjust and display in perpetuity the correct time in big sans serif numerals, no matter what you seek on the screen.
But, having gotten so precise at keeping us oriented to the clock, modern technology has paradoxically changed our relationship with time.
Take, for instance, television. We’re living through an incredible boom of great shows. Often described, with a weary irony, as the era of Peak TV, this wealth of programming followed tech and traditional premium broadcasters finally figuring out how to commercialize streaming platforms in the 2010s. As a result, you the viewer can move in any sort of direction, watching in bulk something that aired last year, or on Sunday, or one scene again and again, freed from the now-or-never quality that TV once had. For decades, TV either made or ran parallel to the rhythms of American life: morning shows, daytime soaps, the 6 o’clock news, the playoffs, Johnny Carson. In between, the broadcast networks aired 22 half-hour episodes, weekly from September to May, at a fixed time, winding away in sequential order at a mass scale.
At the beginning of 2013, Netflix released the entire season of House of Cards on one day, a choice received then as a novelty, meant to match the service’s reputation for users bingeing older shows. One night, at the end of that year, Beyoncé released a surprise album. By the mid-2010s, the convenience of paid streaming meant that you could pay Spotify or Apple $10 a month for, loosely, the entire history of recorded music. Hulu, HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Apple, and others have launched or relaunched streaming properties and brought online massive back catalogs of old shows. In September 2015, Apple relaunched its News app, and by early 2017, the service vastly expanded the number of people receiving news push alerts on their lock screens. News no longer arrives at any set time (in the morning, in the evening), or even on demand, but instead all the time, delivered by people and algorithms.
Again, this isn’t entirely new—but it’s new in a different way.
This kind of disruption happened often over the last century. In the 1930s, radio nationalized news, Westerns, and the Yankees, giving simultaneous access to FDR’s addresses and Edward R. Murrow’s reports from the Blitz. The rise of television killed the day game and the afternoon newspaper, and transformed entire industries and the presidency into staggering centers of power and wealth. “Television had changed the nature of the audience too,” David Halberstam writes of the 1970s NBA, “from a tiny handful of passionate fans who went to live games and paid real money, and insisted on real performances, to millions and millions of watchers, loosely connected to the game.”
But if you revisit the stories of 20th-century media and technology, they weigh toward centralization and consolidation — slotting the news, entertainment, and politics into the morning news, the late-night show, the weekly magazine on air or in print. As a result, when you pull numbers on the not-so-distant past, the commonplace becomes exotic: On May 16, 1996, 34.3 million people watched the season finale of ER — at the same time. To put that paradigm shift in context: For a brief period in 2017, the quiz game show HQ — a live trivia game with a real-life host on a phone app — became popular probably because it required users to tune in at the same set times, something now foreign. Now, the ER season finale in 1996 lives on the same plane as Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album and three different alerts of the same piece of impeachment news, a condition both freeing and overwhelming.
Joss Whedon, whose Buffy the Vampire Slayer played a major role in advancing TV beyond plot-of-the-week serialization in the late ’90s and into monthslong story arcs, has lamented the cultural shift away from weekly consumption and toward bingeing, saying in 2017 that without the time between, “We lose our understanding of narrative.”
He added, “I would want people to come back every week and have the experience of watching something at the same time.”
While there was no doubt something communal about that old-timey experience, it was also confining. While Joss Wheedan might want me to watch the narrative unfold at his pace, I prefer to make that call myself.
But, of course, technology has once again flipped that script on us, with time-bending effects:
As the 2010s went on, the platforms adopted the live and the disappearing and attempted to reach you with what you care about most — to make the experience less disorienting by focusing on what garners the most attention. During the 2016 election, Instagram added the ephemeral stories and shifted to an algorithmic timeline. “If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up, no matter how many accounts you follow or what time zone you live in,” reads the corporate unveiling, a cheerful promise of permanent detachment from the clock in favor of what you (are thought to) care about.
Twitter had built its business on the ordered timeline, but it too introduced algorithmic weighting that same spring. “Someday soon, the tweets you see will be a little more interesting, and the tweets you miss won’t be as important,” a former Twitter employee wrote at the time. “And guess what: You won’t even notice. You won’t! You think you will, but you won’t.”
The new Twitter feed transformed how a user perceived something going viral; while a viral tweet used to get a few thousand retweets, it would now get tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of retweets. Powered by the new algorithmic weighting, the platform’s new quote-tweet function further turned Twitter into an ever-escalating, ever-nesting series of warring comments, dunks, and owns. Memes take hold, then disappear. One link of breaking news might hang suspended in your feed, hurtling through time like when astronauts do zero-gravity somersaults. You might see this as it happens — or 6, 9, 15, 22 hours later.
While this alleviates FOMO, it’s also jarring. Unless one pays careful attention, it’s easy to jump on a viral tweet from last evening 14 hours later without realizing one is doing so. And, quite frequently, I’ll see someone on my Facebook or Twitter feed share a story from 2, 3, or 13 years ago because it has gone viral for some reason or another, thinking that it’s new.
I tend to see most of this as either positive or neutral rather than negative. While there’s no doubt that the constant stream of information from our phones can be exhausting and disorienting, I mostly prefer it over the disconnectedness of even a decade, much less two decades, ago. But our relationship with time is constantly evolving, likely faster than our brains can adjust.