I turned up for a meeting the other day and the security guard at the big corporate offered to call my party for me. “Their phone says it’s disconnected,” he said. I explained to him that the day prior two of the country’s largest cell providers had major issues with their networks and that was likely the reason. “Wow,” he said, “did you know that Facebook went down yesterday too?”
We can’t escape the fact that we live in a digital age today, seemingly at the apogee of possibility, borne by microscopic electrons buzzing and flitting around.
I’ll never forget the feeling I got the moment I first chose a precise CD track to play—or the night I spent with an iPod in pocket transfixed by the wonder that right there might conceivably sit my entire CD collection. That moment I first clicked a brick of a cellular battery into a Motorola MicroTAC or the night my wife phoned her parents on their cell phone to the response: “How did you know where we were?” Yep.
But then came the day when my iPod kicked me out due to some corruption I’d made on my iTunes account, and Metallica sued Napster for some corruption scientists had made in the realm of copyright. It got me thinking:
How tenuous as a species have we become in our digital personas? Are we at risk of leaving nothing tangible behind?
Are there any lessons we can pull from the great peoples of the past?
The world’s first civilization, the Sumerians, took pride in record keeping. Big stone tablets could be found on coffee tables everywhere. Some were actually used as coffee tables.
Popular publishing started in Sumer. So did the hernia.
Mightily copious were the Sumerians at note taking, that from the enormity of their efforts and breadth of their culture, mainly fragments remain today—though lots of them. To their chagrin, they discovered that stone crumbled when dropped. Still, let me tell you those coffee tables must have been big, for one of the tablets we have today, towers seven feet tall.
The Egyptians had a chuckle over all of this. They were also the world’s first greenies.
While they ran a slave trade that would rival the sweatshops of present-day Shanghai—for the Egyptians the coffee table eventually gave way to the refinement of the magazine folio.
Papyrus and the stylus were their vehicles for scribbling. They wrote at a frenetic pace too. Reams and reams of the stuff poured into storage huts. Their work bestowed humankind with the Luxor Hotel, and the concept of U-Haul.
Yet, have you seen much of their papyrus flying around? So much effort and all biodegradable. We’re instead, going nuts ransacking tombs to find out what went on back then.
Ah, the Hebrews: they were a lot better at record keeping.
Learning from all this, they had the Almighty himself carve two stone tablets from sapphire for an entire code of law: much more portable and durable than the Sumerian ones of course. They even sought divine instruction for the manufacture of a build-it-yourself Ark to house them in.
In this way, the Hebrews were the precursors to Ikea.
What could be safer than the omnipresence of divine stone, housed within an ornate holy Ark, right? Until they misplaced it all.
What this all boils down to of course, is the question of posterity. And today, given the failures of our ancestors who lived in the tangible world, it takes on a much more pressing focus.
We’ve become a society owning nothing, creating wealth from nothing, forgoing the physical for the digital—also known as “nothing”. Should we worry?
Well, unlike our forebears we’re at peril of losing our heritage within our own lifetimes. Digital storage, e-storage, cloud storage, thermal ink, electricity, operating systems, corporate guardians, digital downloads, face books, texts, amazons, apples. Technologies we’ve only come to know for the past three decades—some for less than a single one.
Is this hubris? Is it an over-reliance on trust, or maybe a blind faith-type of apathy?
Maybe it’s a good thing if in a hundred years or so, nothing about our way of life survives, given the way we’ve progressed as a world.
Could that be “The Divine Plan” after all?
Get by with what you’ve got. Do the best you can. And let the next lot carry on with the leftovers.
Still, what a shame for the appreciators of history: the romantics among us, who believe in the mysteries of life and seek lessons from which to grow.
How long will these very words here hang around? They’re digital too. They rely on electricity to power them, an operating system to translate them, and a corporate entity to keep them alive.
On this point, I’m not concerned. You see their whole purpose is to touch a string of sorts.
If the universe is comprised of superstrings as some hypothesize, maybe, just maybe, they’ll pop up somewhere, in a galaxy far away, or in a different dimension in time.
Where they’ll likely be used as a coaster on a coffee table.
Next time you’re in Washington, DC, take a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. There in a glass display case you’ll catch a glimpse of our legacy to our times. Not the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
A Sony Walkman.
© 2014 Adam Parker. You’ve just read a Parkerpinion.
Main picture: Smithsonian wonders, author’s picture.