I was wondering recently how people in the future will absorb the works and records of past times. Especially with the past getting bigger all the time.
That’s an uneasy thought: we pause a moment to consider it. One could certainly make a case for just letting it all go. Or erasing it. Like Qin Shi Huang.
Then conclude: of course they will absorb and remember. Some of them. It’s what people do. Some of them. The human story, composed of chapters, is One.
The poisonous reptile technology to the rescue. The internet, of course, where everything lies for the asking, but its power source seems fragile to me. Which raises the specter of the internet finding ways to survive on its own. Too late to panic—that genie’s out of the bottle.
Or, reams of what we once called “reading” will be uploaded directly to the brain—I’d bet on that. But like lived and vicarious experience with us today, there will be a distinction between earned and implanted knowledge, the former having more cachet. Not that implanted knowledge won’t have its utility. Who cares. We ourselves used to be able to remember all sorts of things and now we have these machines and can’t remember shit.
Future people will remember—though they will completely recalibrate, of course, what’s important, interesting, relevant, or “great.”
Now why exactly is remembering important?
Because it opens up the bottom below our feet and the sky above our heads. Like imagination, from which it can’t really be distinguished, it gives the mind somewhere to expand. It gives depth and texture to human experience and releases us from the narrow vision of our individual egos.
I know a town that set out to systematically destroy all traces of its past. Anything unique, quirky, definitive, bearing the idiosyncratic touch of prior people, was bulldozed and replaced with generic, plastic, faux-landscaped, chain-everything mediocrity. A few people were getting rich, and of course ignored the objections of other people that they were selling their soul for trinkets. And now it’s too late.
Progress is good, but it needs to harmonize with the past. When the past and present are in harmony, life is richer. Like having your own Christmas tree ornaments, and some from your mother, together.
I have two siblings and six first cousins, with five of the latter still living. Usually once a year we manage a cousins’ reunion. It used to be parents and grandparents too, spilling onto the porch and yard, but except for one beloved aunt they’re all gone, so it’s just the cousins and in-laws and maybe a smattering of some offspring now.
We’ve known each other all our lives, so it doesn’t matter how long it’s been—we take up exactly where we left oaff. Except for the initial rush of reunion we could have cut off in mid-sentence a year ago, and resumed at the coordinating conjunction. We don’t really see the physical bodies before us, at least not primarily, because they are subsumed in the totality of lifelong relationships. Yes, our remarks betray our self-consciousness: I shouldn’t eat this, I need to lose ten pounds!—the only thing receding about me is my hairline!—but we don’t really see those things. We see an arc, from childhood to present, formed of a thousand memories, guilty secrets, and immeasurable sadness and laughter through every era of our lives. It is impossible for me to look at my cousins, or siblings, or old friends, and see only the person before me. Or if in some rare moment I do, it’s a fleeting shock. I was looking at my good friend the other day and saw his nose. I thought, my God, it’s just a regular nose! Like anybody’s.
This is one of the defining features of getting up in years: you don’t see things as points but as arcs. People. Eras. Your own life. You don’t just understand, you feel the artistry of time. What you meet in the world you tend to see not as points in themselves, but as points on a curve. You gauge them by your perspective of where they’ve been and are likely to go. The experience of life gets elongated.
When the human brain reaches a static point, its energy is all invested in holding it static. Like if you’re a dam, that’s your job. We’re all familiar with this, it’s only human. But circumscribing the space around us freezes us into hardness.
We live the ultimate lie: seeing reality as fixed, discrete, unfluid, black and white, and rigid. Which it isn’t.
It’s hard to love your neighbor that way.