By Tara Dugan
Consider the sun.
In The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell observes that it takes about eight minutes for sunlight to reach Earth. As a result, when we observe any of the sunlight around us, “we are seeing the sun of eight minutes ago.”
With this comes a dramatic conjecture: “If the physical sun had ceased to exist within the last eight minutes,” Russell writes, “that would make no difference to the sense-data which we call ‘seeing the sun’.” That is, the world’s fate could be irreversibly changed and the sun snuffed out like a candle for eight full minutes before the Earth’s inhabitants would know anything about it. Eight minutes of apparent normalcy—a false security—would interpose.
The length of which is approximately ninety-six breaths.
In a modern existence, where internet connectivity is omnipresent for most people, the societal landscape is rapidly evolving. Work hours are becoming relative when employees are accessible at all times of day. News coverage has broadened in scope when every phone has a camera, making nearly every witness a potential on-the-ground reporter. The same daily use of smartphones has enabled any outing to become a potential viral video leading to instant fame or notoriety, while the average person’s itinerary, from when they wake up to where and when they eat their meals, are easily traced by companies that benefit from the thriving business of data collection. Even criminal activity is constantly adapting to a more connected world, where unsuspecting players of the new phone game Pokémon Go are lured into isolated areas to be mugged and assaulted.
Public response and outcry has also transformed dramatically. Public pressure is a palpable force more than ever before. Convicted rapists, including former college student Brock Turner, are publicly shamed, their crimes made ubiquitous, as citizens exert their collective power of social correction. Similarly, the death of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo earlier this year became an online spectacle that incited widespread public debate and discussion. Amidst the natural commentary and questions emerged a firestorm of disparagement, disgust, and death threats—all with a speed and immensity unprecedented before social media. The virtual world allows every voice to resonate in the public arena: a veritable Roman audience which casts its votes in a roar and show of hands.
The world’s current interconnectedness and immediacy makes the eight minutes’ journey from sun to Earth seem like an unbearable length of time when living in today’s existence. No one abides an internet connection where it takes eight minutes for something to load. Few have the patience to be as many as eight minutes behind the breaking news coverage. When it comes to the exchange of information and opinion, actions are often better measured in heartbeats rather than breaths.
Yet this immediacy often creates an illusion of something that is not there. We have immediate access to a breaking story, but we do not always have immediate access to the facts of the matter. After the apparent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California—and this only a short time after the Paris attacks—a security analyst on NPR observed that when it comes to a breaking news story like terrorism, in effect, no one should believe anything they hear for the first forty-eight hours: an interminable timeframe for the modern mind.
The reason for this buffer is because the truth is often in limbo for the first forty-eight hours. With an instantaneous world of communication, it can be argued that the facts take even longer to emerge when speculation and rumors surface at the same time, sometimes twisting facts into unrecognizable forms like a very real game of telephone.
As people who are acclimated to instantaneity, we find comfort in a deluge of details, live coverage, and multiple viewpoints. We also have incredible ease in making our reactions public. These can be thoughtful, meticulous, poetic reactions. Such responses can also be gut reactions: a Greek tragedy of first impressions and knee-jerk emotions, as status updates and video blogs that are thereafter archived and accessible forever.
The problem with being immediately reactive is that when we have calmed down, reconsidered, or walked away, we might develop a new perspective. Our gut reaction is rarely our final word on the subject. And we are an informational species feeding on more readily available information than at any time before, whether or not that information is accurate. With a continuous flux of information, the original breaking news is bound to change immeasurably from that first hour, on that first day. And with the evolution of the story, our views might change with it.
The eight minutes it takes for the sun to travel to Earth represents a remarkable symbol. Even at the speed of light, there is still a chance for pause. Not everything we think needs to proceed out of our mouths or through our fingertips. Humans have evolved not only to be able to think faster than they speak, but to think while they speak and reconsider what they choose to say, all for the sake of commonsense self-preservation. In pausing to reconsider, our statements become even more powerful, if only because they are free of a hundred other assertions which do not properly represent what we mean.
Eight minutes. Ninety-six breaths. Two and a half songs on the radio. All different measurements of a small buffer in time: a moment of pause.
If history is “What,” and science is “How,” then philosophy like Russell’s might be best described as “Why”—or even, “Why not?” As the gateman says to the protagonist Miles in Norton Juster’s allegorical children’s classic The Phantom Tollbooth, “Why not?” is “a good reason for almost anything.” And once Miles is in the city of Dictionopolis, where expressions such as “it’s as easy as falling off a log” are taken quite literally, the king’s Count of Connotation warns Miles, “You see…you must pick your words very carefully and be sure to say just what you intend to say.”
Then why not pretend, if only for ninety-six breaths, that the world might not be as we think it is in this moment? That in ninety-six breaths everything will change, and our worldview with it? There is a strong chance that nothing will come of that pause, of course. Perhaps no breaking news will be any different in its facts, even when forty-eight hours have come and gone. We might not feel any differently than we did when we first wanted to react, reply, or reprove.
All the same, it’s only ninety-six breaths.
Edited by Jake Yarnold