Many systems, many times

In an article mentioned previously, Jean-Sebastien Guy wrote,

For the system of society, the process of self-description is therefore the process of selection of self-descriptions. Could we imagine society selecting more than one self-description at a time? . . . [It] is nevertheless possible for society to embrace more than one self-description at a time. One must remember that society is not a homogenous space. In a society, numerous operations are being produced at the same time. If the system can indeed be seen as space, then its operations are not evenly distributed in it. Rather they gravitate around “strange attractors.” Each of those constitutes a panoramic site offering a unique view over society as a whole.  In one single site, only one self-description can be selected at a time. However, as these sites multiply, the unity of the system comes to be reflected in more and more different ways . . . . Thus we say that in society there is more than one of those strange attractors in action in the system (there are multiple attractors because society is differentiated into many subsystems). Yet from one site to the other, the various self-descriptions continue to contradict and oppose each other, for each single system ultimately corresponds to one self-description in particular (so that site come to eclipse or absorb one another as self-descriptions substitute each other through the flow of society’s operations. (5)

On the whole, I agree with the argument; however, I’m not sure I exactly agree that society embraces more than one self-description at a time. The key words here are “at a time.” This suggests that there is just one time, or one shared temporal dimension, in which all of these self-descriptions are being constructed. But I think it’s more accurate to say that there are as many times as there are self-referential systems. For instance, the economy and the law do not do not share a single time–each has their own sense of time. A fly and a human being trying to swat that fly do not operate with the same sense of time. We have to identify the observer and the distinctions that observer makes. As Glennie & Thrift put it,

what we call time is an ungainly mixture of times—unfolding at different speeds in different spaces—which intersect and interact in all manner of ways.

Glennie, Paul, and Nigel Thrift. Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales, 1300-1800, Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2009.


We might say that time means how long it takes to complete a system operation, or to connect one operation to another operation, or as long as it takes for an event to become irreversible. For instance, for an organization, time is how long it takes to make a decision, which entails connecting one decision to another decision. In the economy, time is how long it takes to complete an economic transaction. In an interaction system, time is how long it take to connect one communicative event (the synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding) to another one so that communication can continue. In this case, if one person says something and it takes a long time for the other person to understand what was said, then time moves slowly within that system.

But we must also distinguish between first-order and second-order observations. Time is an observational scheme, a way of observing. If one system (say, a psychic system) observes an interaction system (e.g., observes two people talking) the observer might note that it takes a very long time for one person to respond to the other person’s last utterance. (It’s also about expectation insofar as the observing system expects the interaction to proceed more quickly.) That is one sense of time, but the interaction system, as self-observing system, has its own sense of time.

A system event in itself has no temporal duration; time only comes into play as events are connected to one another (and there is a sense of before and after). The event passes away as soon as it happens if it not connected to another event of the same kind–say, one economic transaction (payment) connected to another economic transaction.

(Note: This is what C.S. Peirce was talking about in terms of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.”  

Time is about about expectation, or expectational structures. A system expects one event to be followed up by another event, such as an interactional system expecting a question to followed by an answer, or an economic system expecting payment to be followed by a transfer of goods.

The economy moves so fast that a slow system like politics or religion can never keep up.



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