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Monday Is Real

The authors of this book met to plan it in the wilds of South Australia in 2013. We earnestly discussed how an individual might envision the future and act on that basis. But as we discussed the actual processes, we noticed that this is hardly a solitary enterprise. To illustrate, one of us had plans to fly home the Monday after the week-long meeting. The very idea of Monday is a cultural construction. Solitary beings would not have Mondays. Moreover, the precise definition of Monday is subject to social construction, indeed it is very officially set by the culture as a whole. The Monday of the flight home corresponded to the day that the United States switched to daylight savings time, so the 24-hour daily schedule shifted forward by an hour. Australia, being in the southern hemisphere, was already on its own daylight savings time, and it was preparing to revert to normal time, although that would not happen until April. The flight home would depart from Australia on Australian time and land in the United States on the forward-shifted daylight savings time, thus an hour earlier than the previous day's same-numbered flight landed. Of course no actual hour disappeared from reality, and the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles took the same amount of time as ever. Only the official time of landing would be different because of the cultural convention of skipping one of the wee hours between late Saturday night and Sunday morning.

That was the least of it. The plane reservation on Monday was not something a solitary individual could have made or even contemplated. The ticket was purchased months in advance. It was not a solitary or solipsistic fantasy: There really was going to be a particular flight on that particular Monday, with a limited number of seats to be bought and reserved well ahead of the actual date of flight. Reserved seats on airplane flights are only possible in a social world that has structured its future quite precisely. Because of these precise plans, remarkable things happen in human social groups. An assortment of strangers show up at a preordained time and place, line up to climb into a big metal tube, and sit in specifically designated seats. The metal tube blasts into the sky and comes down at a far distant place, whereupon the passengers separate and go their separate ways, mostly never to see each other again. The airplane itself is only possible because of a cultural accumulation of knowledge that has been built up over decades, using science and technology and regulated by the government's laws, paid for with money and yet now functioning to increase total wealth. Without a culture that has an established future, nobody would build, let alone invent, an airplane. Certainly no one except in the most advanced human civilizations ever did.

The point of this example is that the future is created and mapped out not by individual persons but by the social group. If you lived alone and never interacted with another person, you would have no Mondays, no reservations, and certainly no airplane flights. Humans label themselves "Homo sapiens” based on their ostensible individual intelligence, but the solitary human mind can accomplish very little. The great progress of human culture comes from the accumulation of many, many different individuals contributing to a common stock of knowledge. The greatest individual minds operate within a system, and their achievements simply move the collective enterprise forward rather than accomplishing something that is truly individual. That is, they take what many others have already built and learned, and they add to it, using methods they have learned from teachers and others. If you started from scratch, you could hardly figure out addition and subtraction, let alone trigonometry, calculus, and the iPhone.

The future is neither an objective, inhuman prospect nor a product of solitary imagination. Airline flights are a good example. They are not mere fantasy, nor are they up to individual thinking. There will really be one particular plane flying from Sydney to Los Angeles on a given Monday morning, and it has a fixed number of seats, and a given person may or may not be able to sit in one. Likewise, the future really does contain political elections, final exams, holidays, and deadlines. These are neither a figment of one person's imagination nor a purely physical fact. Plane flights and elections can be delayed. Exams are scheduled on an ad hoc basis by school and college administrators, and exceptions are permitted in some cases (e.g., taking the exam a day later because one was ill). There is a real future, but its existence rests on the shared understandings of the social group. We already know that February 2063 will have 28 days, but February 2064 will have 29 days. It is even slightly possible that governments will revise that. Long ago, Europe's ruling bodies decided that there would be no October 10, 1582, when they switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and simply skipped over a couple weeks.

In fact, it's even weirder. Some countries didn't make the change right away, but eventually they all did, so October 10, 1582, actually took place and existed in some countries but not others, and the stragglers had other phantom calendar dates. Had the discrepancy been the other way, it's doubtful that they would have skipped backward and repeated a couple weeks, so that two different days would have had the same date. Instead they probably would have just tacked on a dozen extra days at the end of one month. The principle here, which could not be deduced directly from the physical movements of the planet, was that duplicate dates would create more problems than skipped ones. Having two October 10ths in a particular year would complicate birthdays, contracts, historical records, and more. (Note, however, that when a country shifts into daylight savings time, it does duplicate an hour, although it tries to minimize scheduling hassles by picking the least eventful hour of the week. Imagine the chaos that would stem from doubling a really busy hour.)

In a sense, the future is a product of collective imagination and agreement. The group imagines it together. Early humans probably made simple plans together, such as for a group hunt or a battle. The modern construction of the calendar is similar. That is, the people in the group cooperate to impose their collective imagination on top of some physical or anticipated facts. The planet does continue to rotate and revolve around the sun, regardless of our imaginings. But we use our collective imagination to count and calculate and label those movements. That's how we get Mondays (and all the rest).

 
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