Zipslide Errors: Confusing the nature of past and future

ZipperLoosely speaking, time is like zipping up a very long zipper. The future is open; the past is closed. The present is like the zipslide closing up possibilities. While we may not be able to determine what happened in the past, the past is nonetheless determined. The future is not. It’s unknowably open. There is post-destiny but no pre-destiny.

Indeed, time isn’t really like a zipper, because zippers close in predictable ways. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be very useful. Also there’s no unzipping with time. If a zipper snags you can pull the zipslide down to free it. If your life snags on something, you can’t unzip time.

Time travel is easy. It’s changing speed or direction that’s hard.

Really, the only thing time has in common with zippers is the ongoing production of closed past from open future with the zipslide of the present. The radical difference between past and future confuses us. In thinking (and wishing) about the past and future, we make “zipslide errors.” Here are a few:

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Pre-destiny: If reality is consistent and the past is knowable, then the future must be knowable also.

The past is prologue. Everything we surmise about the future is built from what we know about the past. The past is determined, so it follows that the future is also. Or so we think, even though it isn’t.

Fiction doesn’t help us overcome this confusion. Storytelling disguises a closed past to look like an engagingly open but dramatically closed future. Storytelling is driven by a combination of suspense and a sense of destiny from which we derive the lesson that uncertainty about the future is a figment of our imagination. If the hero’s determination to shape the future is any indication, we should all have more confidence in our ability to know and shape the future.

In fact, the hero’s determination is not an indication of anything. The hero is fictional. We study heroes as though their destinies were in the future when in fact they’re in the past, crafted yesterday by some storyteller.

Wishing for an open past and a closed future.

Yearnings confuse us about the zipper of time. Sometimes we’re glad the past is closed and the future is open. We wouldn’t want our past successes to unravel, and we like the feeling that our future chances of success are open. But sometimes we yearn for an open past and a closed future. We wish we could go back and correct past failures. We wish that future successes were “destined to be.” We hope we will be able to close the good deals of our lives as predictably as one closes a zipper.

Miracle: A lopsided word that’s evidence of our yearning for open futures so long as they’re good ones.

Miracle comes from miraculum, which at its origin means “object of wonder,” but in church Latin translated as “marvelous event caused by God.” It has come to mean a positive outcome made possible by a completely open future.

It’s telling that we don’t have a counterpart word for a negative outcome. We have catastrophe, apocalypse, unforeseen crisis, but none of these connote the completely open unpredictability of miracle.

Fear-acles? Scare-acles? Mire-acles? Terror-cles?

This is especially odd because a miracle - a windfall gain to a particular party - is often inherently at the expense of some other party. If I’m praying for a miracle job offer, cure, victory, or judgment day, I want the job, cure, win, or salvation to go to me, not someone else. Greed aside, the victor’s miracle is by definition the defeated’s unforeseeable bad surprise, yet we don’t have a word for the latter’s experience.

We pray for wishes fulfilled by preternatural forces enough to give them the name miracle. We don’t dare give a name to bad surprises of a comparable magnitude.

Information: Closed and open versions of what information is.

We think about information in two ways, corresponding to the closed past and the open future. The closed version is information that switches things toward determinate outcomes. Your alarm clock wakes you with the information that it’s time to get out of bed. It causes you to switch gears from sleep to daily activity. The traffic light turns green, bringing you information that it’s time to go. The alarm, the green light - they’re information of a predictable sort. They work on pre-established switches, causing automatic, reliable, and determinate responses. Information of this sort brings about foregone conclusions. The interpretation is pre-established.

This is how most people and indeed most scientists think about information. From it comes the idea that minds are like computers, just huge numbers of information-processing switches. The problem with this approach is that it tells you nothing about how these switching mechanisms come about and how they change over time. Because they do change. Information exists that would switch your behavior today that wouldn’t switch your behavior ten years from now and won’t switch your children’s children’s behavior. How does such switch switching happen?

That’s where the second, open-ended way to think about information comes in. It’s information not just for switching a switch on or off but for switching one switching system to another in life’s unpredictable way. There’s a particular switch’s predictable response to information, but then there’s also the meta-responsiveness that changes the configuration of switches. This meta-responsiveness is an open-ended process. We don’t know what will be noteworthy information in five hundred years; not just whether the light will be green or red but whether a light in a road will have the significance it currently has. In five hundred years, the switches in us that make green lights noteworthy today may well have been replaced by other switches that are more useful to our future environment. The question is, How? How do new meanings evolve?

Scientific muddles about information, the closed past, and the open future

Information theory is the established scientific approach to information. It originates with Claude Shannon, an engineer who established the current method of quantifying information, used, for example in quantifying a computer’s information-handling power.

A gigabyte is a billion bytes and a byte is eight bits. A bit is a binary switch measured as having the value “two.” Like a light switch, it has two positions and is in only one position at any time. The information contained in a binary switch’s position is a two-to-one step-down from potential to actual: 2/1 = 2.

This very concrete definition of information - what could have been sent in comparison to what was sent - applies to all sorts of information. Pick a number between one and ten - there’s a ten-to-one step-down from potential to the actual number you pick. The number you pick therefore has an informational value of ten. Pick a card, any card - there’s a fifty-two-to-one step-down from potential to actual. The card’s informational value is fifty-two. Make a move on a chessboard and the potential games that could be played shrinks to only those games that could follow from your move.

In fact this definition applies not just to information but to every potential that the zipper of time ever closes. One minute there’s potential; the next minute a reduction in potential. Is everything therefore information?

By the second, open-ended version of information, anything can become information. But not everything is, and some information is significantly more significant than other information. Here’s a binary bit of information: Diet Coke or regular Coke with your Happy Meal? Here’s another binary bit of information: the premier of Russia just did or didn’t launch nuclear missiles at the United States. One is of significantly less significance than the other, but they both have the same “value.” This issue is not addressed in information theory’s closed version of information. In fact, in the scientific treatment of information as a step-down in potential, the whole issue of significance is ignored.

Which is why we need a better grasp of the open-ended version of information. We need to understand how things change in significance as the zipper of time moves forward. That will be a topic in coming weeks.

For real insight into the relationship between the past and future, listen to this insightful commentary by President George W. Bush in his weekly radio address.

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