A history of our times
Assistant Professor of Cognitive and Information Sciences, University of California, Merced & Omidyar Fellow, The Santa Fe Institute
This is a talk about Time. I start with the tension between, on the one hand, the global diversity in how people conceive of time, and on the other, the sense of stability—even necessity—that we often assign to our own idiosyncratic conceptions. I then argue as follows. First, conceptualizations of time are best understood, not as concepts within individual brains, but as heterogeneous systems distributed across brains, bodies, material artifacts, and cultural practices—that is, as “cognitive ecologies.” Second, within a cognitive ecology, mutual dependence is the rule rather than the exception. Third, since cognitive ecologies consist of such varied components as neural circuits and Twitter timelines, these ecologies exhibit change on multiple, nested timescales—timescales that range from the slow evolution by natural selection of innate biases in our brains and bodies, to the cultural evolution of language and other artifacts, to the rapid pace of situated interaction. Fourth, these considerations explain the patterns in cross-cultural diversity, the stability of conceptions within communities, and the ways in which conceptions do, and do not, change over time. This argument is intended to be generic and to apply equally to our conceptions of other domains. I conclude that our conceptions of time—and number, and space—only make sense in light of their histories.