The sports meets pop culture part of the Internet jumped on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski this week for not understanding what time travel is. I disagree with the consensus that Gronk is wrong about what time travel is, but I found the dust-up fascinating as a journalist, not as a physicist, which I am decidedly not.
Gronk has a media reputation as a bro’s bro, a good-natured, fun-loving lunkhead. The iconic Gronk momentcame after the Patriots won the AFC Championship Game in January 2012: An ESPN Deportes reporter asked him, in Spanish and then English, if he would be celebrating the victory, and Gronk said, “Si. Yo soy fiesta.” That moment becoming iconic is another blog post.
This week Pats radio announcer Scott Zolak asked Gronkowski what superpower he’d like to have. He said he wished he had a time machine, so that “I could just be like, ‘I want to be in Florida right now,’ and then boom, I’m in Florida.”
Boom. The snark was unleashed, including by my outfit, Bleacher Report. Here are some headlines:
Rob Gronkowski Wants to Time Travel to Florida, Doesn’t Know How Time Works (Bleacher Report)
Rob Gronkowski doesn’t understand the concept of time machines (SB Nation)
Rob Gronkowski Thinks Planes And Cars Are Time Machines (Deadspin)
Here’s Deadspin’s Samer Kalaf:
Gronk doesn’t understand how time works. Or maybe he doesn’t know what a plane is. Either way, it’s concerning. Does he know what happens when he gets on the big metal bird to go to away games?
Clearly the consensus view of this situation is that if you’re in Boston and then you instantaneously show up in Florida, that is not time travel. It’s just travel. Several people took the time to patiently spell this out to me on Twitter. Zolak helpfully informed Gronk that he was talking about a “transporter,” not a time machine. Keep in mind neither of these things exist.
I think that’s a valid viewpoint, but what’s interesting to me is that it’s a viewpoint, a perspective. It’s a way of looking at the world, specifically a way of thinking about time.
I believe it’s not the only valid way of thinking about time. It’s not how I think about time. I think that if you have a machine that does nothing to change the distance from Boston to Miami Beach—Gronk means Miami Beach when he says “Florida,” don’t you think?—but reduces the time it takes to cover that distance from several hours to zero seconds, your machine is very much about time. I think it’s fair to say that a plane is a kind of time machine.
If you don’t agree, I don’t want to debate the point. I’m just saying there are different ways of thinking about “time.” Your way of thinking about it is cool with me.
From all the evidence—the articles and the amen chorus in the comments section and on social media—the people who don’t look at time the way I do don’t think of their point of view as a point of view. They think of it as a fact. What Gronk talked about? “That’s not a time machine.” Fact.
That’s where I get interested as a journalist, because as a journalist, I was taught to be “objective,” which is to say without bias. I, like many, have long since rejected this practice, the purpose of which is for journalists to claim they have no bias. NYU professor and media thinker Jay Rosen calls this “the view from nowhere.”
See the parallel? You can’t not have a bias. How you think about something as seemingly fundamental and fact-based as how time works can be affected by who you are and what culture you’re a part of. “That’s not a time machine” might sound pretty weird to anyone who hadn’t grown up hearing that air travel had “shrunk the world.” As opposed to, say, “slowed down the clock.” I’ve been hearing about how “the world is much smaller now,” thanks to faster travel and communication, for as long as I can remember.
I’m not saying the consensus view—”That’s not a time machine”—is incorrect, in the way that 2+2=47 is incorrect. I’m saying it’s an opinion, a viewpoint, not a factual statement. It’s like saying “A true friend is someone who wouldn’t let you root for the New England Patriots.” A valid way to look at the world. Just not a fact.
But the snarkosphere treated “That’s not a time machine” as a factual statement, because the default way of thinking about time in Western culture in 2013 is so ingrained, so agreed-upon, that it feels to most people in that culture like the only way to think about time.
What else in our consensus worldview is like that? What other opinions and points of view do we think of as facts? That’s a central question in journalism, and one I believe every journalist should be asking all the time: Is that a fact, or an agreed-upon viewpoint?