Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The End of Time

I think we are living through a significant moment in human history. Something fundamental is changing. The development of human language is perhaps the greatest factor in the creation of civilization, because it allowed people to know about things that they did not experience personally. Writing created a way to store portable information outside of human brains, and the printing press provided an economical way to distribute that information across the world, without being changed in the telling. In essence, printed material provided the blueprints for our global civilization.

But writing is still a fairly labor intensive process, and only a tiny fraction of human experience has been captured in this way. The further back we go, the less we find, and all of it has been written through the filter of its authors' minds. History, as the saying goes, is written by the winners. Fiction helps us understand the people and society of its time, but only the public face. Published authors know (or hope) that their work will be read by a broad audience.

This was the world into which my grandfather was born. The great thing about this world was that the past and future were almost equally abstract and impenetrable. Legend and prophesy can hold great power, but they have less substance than the sounds of a house awakening, the familiar smell of a mate, or the tearing grief of losing a loved one forever. I'm sure it was still common for lives to get stuck at some intersection of regret and lost opportunity, but people eventually forget, or at least remember more conveniently. There is ample evidence that we continually remanufacture our memories to be more consistent with our current world view. This is not some memory defect that comes with aging. It's a design* feature, meant to help us keep our minds in some semblance of order.

This all started to change a little over a century ago, with the invention of audio recording, and then moving pictures**. All of a sudden, not only the words could be captured, but the sounds, and then the pictures. Less was left to the imagination, and we could all share the voice of Franklin Roosevelt describing a day that will live in infamy. No nuclear devices have been exploded above ground during most of your lifetimes, but we all know the horrible beauty of the mushroom cloud.

Like the printing press did for writing, television distributed movies and sound to everyone. As a child, I watched live as little Jack Kennedy saluted the caisson carrying his fallen father. A half dozen years later, a third of the world's population watched Neal Armstrong step on the moon, and billions more have watched it in the intervening forty years. Significantly, the words we heard are the ones in the history books, even though they were not the exact words Armstrong uttered. In those same years, our nation saw for the first time the realities of war in living color, as every night images of Viet Nam were beamed to us via satellite, replete with jungle, and flame, and blood.

Once recorded -- and while preserved -- an event cannot be forgotten, or alternatively remembered. These images become the dots we must connect. John Kennedy still dies in the same way every time, and the bodies at My Lai cannot be denied. There are fewer degrees of freedom, and the past is sticky. Time has less power to wash away our triumphs and sins.

Film and tape were relatively expensive and troublesome for most of my life, and still only a tiny fraction of history was recorded. Home movies of Christmas and Easter made up the bulk of personal posterity. News crews captured a few significant events, and a few hundred hours a day of film and video were recorded for posterity. Most of that has been lost as the media degrade, the playback technologies become obsolete, or people simply decide it is not worth saving. Interestingly, much of the music survived, and it has the power to transport us in time as well as any contraption imagined by H.G. Wells. But that's another post.

The situation is different now. The Digital Age has brought us the technology to record virtually everything we do, and the internet gives us means to distribute it. I still have virtually every e-mail message I have received over the past fifteen years. If you live in an average city, you can expect to be on camera up to a hundred times in an average day. You could record your entire life, including constant video coverage, and store it all for a few hundred dollars per year. And the price is dropping fast.

We are reaching a point where nothing is forgotten. History is online and searchable. And an increasing number of us are recording it. I expect my Facebook page to outlive me -- I just don't know for how long. This post could survive for a thousand years, stuck deep in the Church of Google archives, and read only by machines. Every word you write online, every picture you post, is being catalogued, and indexed, and correlated somewhere.

All of this gave me the serious creeps for several years, and I even toyed with the idea of going "off the grid" at one point. Then I got over myself, and realized that this is the way civilization is going. And I'm not Amish. But I do wonder what it means for the human experience. What will happen to us as our present becomes more difficult to separate from our past?

* Don't take my use of the word "design" too seriously.

** Damn you, Thomas Edison! Also, I realize that still photography was around for a long time before this, but I really don't think it was a major contributor to the process I'm trying to describe, at least not until cameras and film became commonplace.


  1. Hah! The web may mean the end of forgetting, but human powers of interpretation are infinite. Faced with the same situation in black and white, two people are perfectly capable of understanding it in completely opposed ways. I see this every day at home. Historians aren't facing obsolescence any time soon.

  2. like you, i've abandoned the concept of 'off the grid'. primarily because life would then become a spectator sport, and that's counter to my internal wiring...

    you are correct that history becomes harder to deny with documentation, but the human is capable of denying facts on every level. remember, there are still boneheads out there demanding to see the President's birth certificate...

    one thing i know, however, is that my personal ability to reconstruct my emotional history will not go away. it's key to my functional survival...

  3. @Pueblo/@Daisyfae: I think the human ability to interpret and deny is safe for the foreseeable future. I'm just saying that there are pretty big parts of my life that are nearly a complete blank to me. And having no record makes it easier to be who I wish -- degrees of freedom, as it were.

    I find that the little bits of evidence I have rediscovered through friends in recent years have made my life as a story richer, more consistent, and harder to deny.