Uncertainty & The Folds of Time

Folding Public & Private time (Marc Chagall)

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once

Albert Einstein

The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past

William Faulkner

As originally perceived through the moves of the sun and the moon, time is what happens between events: without events there will be no time; and as illustrated by calendars, each event can introduce its own time-scale. Hence the need of making a difference between personal and collective experiences of time.

Time as Personal Experience

From a psychological (individual) perspective time is defined by physical percepts, and time-scales by consciousness; given an experience (percept):

  • Physiological scales cover sense experience directly controlled by the nervous system, bypassing cognitive mediation; they are moments etched in memory like Proust’s madeleines (a).
  • Cognitive scales cover reasoning about conscious observations or mental image of experienced circumstances; they persist as long as the circumstances remain directly, i.e. without reference to shared symbolic representations, relevant (b).
  • Prospective scales cover reasoning about conscious observations or mental image of experienced circumstances relevant shared symbolic representations; they persist as long as collective representations make circumstances relevant (c).
Psychological time frames

As defined, physiological and cognitive time frames are consistent with the two decision-making levels expounded by A. Tversky and D. Kahneman (who received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics):

  1. The first one “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control”. It’s put in use when actual situations must be assessed and decisions taken rapidly if not instantly.
  2. The second one “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations”. It’s put in use when situations can be assessed with regard to past experience in order to support informed decisions making.

The third (prospective) time frame introduces a collective dimension and therefore some agreed upon measurement.

Time as Collective Experience

In contrast to individual time frames set clockwise from events to individual cognition, organisational ones are set counterclockwise so that events can be first ascribed a shared yardstick (aka clock).

Moreover, and contrary to individuals (or groups thereof), organisations don’t perceive events as instantaneous phenomenons but as changes that need to be assessed. It ensues that organisational time frames cannot be neatly set apart according to the nature of root events: if observations (data) are subject to reassessment, so is reasoning (information) and judgment (knowledge); in other words the past often remains live and kicking through present and future.

Nevertheless, organizational time frames still mirror psychological distinctions driven by the uncertainty induced by root events, and consequently by the degree of control thereof:

  • Deterministic time frames: when unambiguous root events (like suns’s and moon’s) can be directly ascribed to relevant information and put to use as knowledge; such time frames can be frozen as procedures (a).
  • Stochastic time frames: when root events involve random variables whose potential range can be accounted for by existing symbolic representations; such time frames can persist as long as the reliability of observations can be improved or until the “last responsible moment,” when further delay would be detrimental (b).
  • Strategic time frames: when root events may involve open-ended developments which may or may not be accounted for by existing symbolic representations; such time frames can persist as long as risk-management schemes can cover for ill-fated turns of events (c).
Organisational time frames weave deterministic, stochastic, and strategic threads

Borrowing from Donald Rumsfeld’s often quoted taxonomy, time frames can thus be defined by things we know (deterministic), things we don’t know (stochastic), and things we don’t know we don’t know (strategic).

Uncertainty & Time Folds

Whether personal or collective, experiences of time appear to be governed by the uncertainty introduced by root events, in practice by what can be known about them; that angle can explain the folds between time frames, and consequently the dynamics of time.

Assuming that time frames are defined by what can be known about events, they are meant to morph, or fold, along with changes in data, information, and knowledge:

  • Digital fold: allostatic adjustment between the physical time-scales of environments and systems
  • Symbolic fold: alignment of (managed) time frames for observations (data analytics) and organisation (business models)
  • Systemic fold: alignment of (managed) time frames between organisation (strategies) and systems (engineering)
Time Folds

Set in broader perspectives echoes of digital, symbolic, and systemic folds can be found in science (measurements and quantum superposition), literature (sense and memory), and finance (pricing futures and reallocation of risk), respectively.




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