As you wake up Monday morning, drinking coffee with your partner, and you attend the weekly meeting at work, you are taking part in what Helge Jordheim and Espen Ytreberg call a process of synchronisation.

‘Everyone who lives in relationships with other people perform these synchronising actions every day: We organise our eating and sleeping habits, we organise our communication with others’, Helge Jordheim explains.

If you don’t have a synchronised time, you can’t really have a community, Jordheim says.

‘You need certain rituals, such as going to work at the same time, celebrating at the same time, and casting our votes at election day. This makes us into collectives’.

Furthermore, synchronisation exists at all levels, not only between single individuals, one to one. For instance, a nation that holds elections, maybe celebrates eid, people assembling in a demonstration against a controversial law, these actions synchronise societies, or groups within them.  

‘However, the times we live with, or live in, don’t necessarily add up, but can come into conflict. In this way, different parts of our social life come out of sync with each other. Synchronisation tries to deal with that’.

The most pressing conflict of this kind is the environmental crisis.   

‘We struggle enormously to find out how to manage our resources in a way that’s “in sync” with nature and its demands’, Espen Ytreberg says.

The past year, he and Helge Jordheim have lead the CAS project In Sync: How Synchronisation and Mediation Produce Collective Times, Then and Now.

  • Read former interviews with the project leaders here

Can synchronisation save the planet?

According to Helge Jordheim, synchronisation is the way we can agree on and establish a common time in a community. That is, not just clock time, but a time of “being together”.

‘As individuals, we all live in different times. The rhythms of a family, for instance, are not always in sync with the rhythm of work’.

He argues that synchronisation is important because time is not one, but “multiple things”, with different speeds and rhythms. These different times need to be synchronised in order to cohere.

The environmental crisis is an example where synchronisation is not happening. At one level, nature time and cultural time are colliding.

‘We have been thinking about nature as constant and unchanging, and nature/time as extremely slow. Now we realize that nature’s time is much more unstable than we thought, and humans affect nature in unforeseen ways’, Espen Ytreberg says, referring to what is often called the Anthropocene, as a name for the current geological era.

At another level, nations and global institutions have not managed to agree on coherent politics to tackle climate change.

‘The human, cultural society must synchronise internally. At the same time, we must synchronise with nature time’, Ytreberg says.

Are we becoming more, or less, “in sync”?

What are then the tools that enable synchronisation?

Of course, there are the time-keeping technologies, like clocks and calendars. But these are practical tools that do not necessarily impact people’s experiences. Collective actions, such as the school strikes for climate that have erupted the past year, are another form of synchronisation with major social and political impact. Then you have the media, through which we consume similar stuff.

‘One example is the development of media of instantaneity, in which media transmit something precisely as it happens’, Ytreberg says as he sums up media history of the last 160 years “very roughly”. The telegraph was first, and then broadcasting came.

‘Today’s media make it possible to synchronise great masses of people over enormous distances that was not possible before. We call this a “mediated form of synchronisation”. Media synchronise whole nations, and synchronise globally’.

Aren’t you attributing to the media a disproportionate amount of agency?

‘It depends on what the discussion is. Many argue polemically that the media sort of traps us in a moment (), that we are not able to think in the past, or ahead, because we are for example updating our website all the time’, Ytreberg answers.

The media scholar is also exploring large events, such as revolutions, elections, and demonstrations. Then it doesn’t make sense to conceive of the media only as blocking the future and the past, he argues.

‘One must try to distinguish what media possibly enables. During large events, media ARE unavoidable, our main source of knowing what goes on now, and what will happen in the future’.

One example of synchronisation at the individual, collective, and global levels is the aforementioned school strike for climate, which has recruited students in demonstrations around the globe.

‘The fact that there is synchronisation around the concept doesn’t guarantee an actual societal upheaval’, Ytreberg explains. ‘You could say that synchronisation is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for an actual social and political change’.

There is an abundance of information on the internet, and we all have our individual consumer habits. Additionally, algorithms feed our social media accounts with more of the same. In turn, we don’t necessarily experience the same through our unique digital compositions. Does this hinder synchronisation?

‘Yes, it does’, Ytreberg answers. ‘It is important not to generalise, but because digitalisation facilitates so much individual consumption, we are now in many ways de-synchronising’. What we refer to as “echo chambers” make it more difficult to share experiences across different groups in the society.

The project has been working on this question throughout the year, Jordheim says.

‘We found that immediacy is easily accessible, and communication in itself does not take much time. On that level, social media works really well in synchronising us. However, although we are able to communicate immediately with each other it does not necessarily mean that we share experiences. Do we see the past and the future the same way? That is not as obvious’.

CAS: A long theory-method workshop

The year at CAS is coming to an end, and the project leaders look back at a year packed with several workshops and conferences.

‘The project’s main purpose has been to open up a wider landscape for interdisciplinary research’, Ytreberg says.

‘Our project does not have a real end-point. Just now, we are trying to overview it in form of a publication where we try to explore different cases, from synchronisation at small scales, at individual levels, to large scales such as for example nations, and to even larger scales where we study the synchronisations of climate change.’

Participants invited several outstanding scholars from different fields, and have tried to mobilize as many ideas and cases as possible during their weekly Friday seminars. 

‘This year has been about generating perspectives, generating possibilities, and making us aware of the wider range of research that we can make use of. It will definitely take us some years to realise the potential, and it will obviously end up making big difference in the way we do research’.

Luckily, they are part of a bigger project in which they can concentrate on catching the “CAS balls that will continue falling from the sky”, as Jordheim puts it.

‘It has been very much like throwing things up in the air and trying to catch them when and where they fall. I am pretty sure I will continue catching CAS balls in the years to come’.