Sunday, August 05, 2012

The New Relativity

This happened WHEN?

Ever since Einstein convinced us that time is not the absolute thing it seems to be, but rather varies from one observer to another, it has continued to appear safe to ignore this fact at the level of everyday reality. As Woody Allen's mother told him, "Brooklyn is not expanding!" Nor is it accelerating to the speed of light. And throughout the 20th century our communications continued to grow ever more instantaneous and global. The assumption of simultaneity became second nature to us, as we came to expect to see and hear events from anywhere in the world "live" as they happened.

The telegraphy of the 19th century gave way to an interlude of radio, when we settled for people describing distant events to us while they happened. The Hindenburg went down in flames, and Edward R. Murrow got bombed in the London blitz. But then suddenly we could see those events as their images were piped through transatlantic cables. Satellites went aloft and we could see the weather down below. TV brought the Vietnam War and the moon landing into our living rooms -- something that the most imaginative science fiction writers had never predicted. Now everyone with a cell phone can be a broadcaster, and revolutions half a world away have become instantly self-documenting.

But as our horizons continue to expand the mutable nature of time is beginning to appear at the level of everyday experience. We're all familiar with the lag in transatlantic TV interviews, due to the few seconds that it takes for the signals to make a 48,000 mile round trip to a satellite and through a battery of sending and receiving equipment. We accept, reluctantly, that we won't know if the Mars lander has landed until about 15 minutes after it has, or has not, occurred. But at least we'll hear about it at the same instant as everyone else on our planet, won't we?

Well, maybe not. And it won't be Einstein's fault, either. It's because a Pause button has been added into the mix of our communications gear. This came home to me recently when I was catching part of a basketball game (go Heat!). I did some personal exulting over an incredible 3-pointer. Then a couple of minutes later I heard a barrage of cheers coming from my next door neighbor's house. I wondered what other game they could be watching. Then it happened again. Another 3-point miracle shot ... wait a minute ... two minutes ... another chorus of hurrahs from the house next door.

The explanation dawned on me. They were watching via ATT's Uverse service which includes a DVR that lets you pause anything you're watching, even "live" TV, so you won't miss a second of it. Someone next door must have gone for a bathroom break, maybe earlier in the day so they forgot, and their service was dutifully delaying all subsequent shows so that not even a commercial interruption would be left out.

Which kind of brings us back to time being relative to the observer, but in a new way. My neighbor and his game-party certainly believed they were watching "live," and I'm sure their excitement was in no way diminished by the delay -- especially because they may have been unaware of it. But from my point of view they were getting crazy about a replay. And for all I know, ATT might have been delaying the show at least a few seconds just in the process of pumping it through their vast network of copper and fiber, so my point of view might have been as divorced from real-time as theirs.

The situation is even more pronounced with the Olympics, normally taking place at a great distance -- the current games being 5 hours ahead of us, and the previous ones in Beijing about half a day out of sync. Since most of us have lives and can't watch during the day, we have to settle for digested replays in the evening hours. It's understood that some of us might like to watch without knowing the outcomes, so news reports come with spoiler alerts to warn you to turn them off, or at least plug your ears and go "LA-LA-LA-LA" for a few minutes.

The other night I watched some gymnastics with my grandchildren, and had to explain that what we were watching had happened hours ago and all the athletes were in bed by now. They readily accepted the explanation and were completely OK with the delay. All that mattered to them was that they were seeing it for the first time. Maybe they have been born into the age of relativity as much as us older folks were born into simultaneity. For better or worse, the nation will no longer cheer for anything at the same moment.

Just something to take note of, another fact of our ever-changing digital lives. If you want to put it all in perspective, all you have to do is go out and look up at the night sky: all those stars, looking just as they looked dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of years ago ... but not now.

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