Today is the (negative) first annual Back to the Future Day. One year until I finally get that damn hoverboard, right?
The history of humanity is a gradient of information.
All that remains of what happened to us as people a few thousand years ago is a sparse collection informational noise, a tiny collection of scattered elements, a dot here and there on an otherwise stark canvas. These few scattered dots allude to stories deeper and more grand than any one of us could dare imagine. But the gaps between those far back, distant bits are wide, leaving much to the deep speculative analysis of science and historians.
…the gradient smearing into an ever-more dense cluster of information points…
As we move closer to the present day, those gaps narrow, the gradient still there and slowly smearing into an ever-more dense cluster of information points. But that gradient remains, always composed of much more clear-space than fill.
And then a curious thing happens as we move even closer to the present day, crossing into the twentieth century, through the end of print-age and start along a path of what we now consider the Internet Age or the Information Age of today. That gradient — that smattering of information — reaches out towards a kind of tipping point where the density of the information it represents might move from being dots of information on a blank canvas to being dots of blank canvas on a smear of information. For the first time in the broad span of human achievement we seem to be getting ready to cross into a realm of more data than gaps.
I imagine there has always been something of this sense. People have long been recording information under the presumption that it will somehow be preserved through the ages. Our capacity to actually preserve that information — or at the very least publish and broadcast it — has been limited however, and it is has not been until recently with the arrival of this vast informational collective we’ve started to build in the Internet that true preservation in perpetuity has suddenly become something of a reality.
This is where that information gradient comes back into the story.
I think I\’ve crossed into a kind of philosophical age of my life…
For a variety of reasons — none-pressing, I should state — I think I’ve crossed into a kind of philosophical age of my life where I spend (way too much) time contemplating things like mortality and personal choices and the impact of being a wad of entropy-fighting flesh propelled into the future at that familiar and constant rate of sixty-seconds per minute.
Along the same lines I’ve been blogging for a while now. It started out as a kind of utilitarian act of communication way back when I began peppering my thoughts into the ether, but has evolved many times finally landing in its current iteration as a kind of ongoing letter to the future. This blog has become, for all intents and purposes, my historical perspective and my contribution to the growing collection of societal data points that have been scattered as a message to the future.
Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes I think that society cannot care enough — either because of the inevitable collapse or the slow, shifting changes that are sure to leave a distinct and clear mark upon what will exist in the space I now occupy at some future point — and that scattering these points of information, adding to the blur of mundane detail that will paint a vast informational tapestry for the future to understand us better, is a waste of time. But then that is pessimistic, isn’t it?
Blogging is a kind of personal archive.
Blogging is a kind of personal archive. On the one hand we write for the “now” and the “moment” publishing on a day-to-day schedule of curiosity and voyeuristic peeks into one person’s life. On the other hand, those moments slip off the bottom of the front pages and into the deep, dark archives, and only occasionally emerge later on; By then they are personal history, moments recollected for entertainment and more idle curiosity.
Barring disaster — barring the collapse of society, the Internet, or even just the notion of informational freedom with the inevitable destruction of intellectual flotsam that would surely follow such a collapse — these words have a good chance of surviving a very long time. They may never be read again after they fall off the bottom of my front page, that’s true — but then again, they may inform some distant, unknowable observer in the far future: They may inform my descendents of some ancient ancestor with too much time to write on his hands. They may inform a scholar of our long-distant society preserved in digital containment. They may inform an artificial intelligence scanning through the whole of human thought and writing in an attempt to better understand its creators. They may do little or they may do much. But there is a better than not chance that they will survive. There is that hope.
Again, I set myself to wondering… what will be known of us in the future? Ten years ago — even five years ago — I don’t think many people were contemplating the value of everyday people putting their thoughts to the wide world as blogs or smatterings of social media quips as a valuable thread in an historical tapestry that would fill the informational gaps of societies of the future. But now? Now it seems like it might be a worthwhile exercise after all.
Defining things is often a task best left to linguists or philosophers, but there a large number of things about which we have these vague, yet certain, concepts living in our minds. The idea of “the future” is one of those things, but if only because there is both (A) a strict definition of “the future” that exists, while simultaneously (B) another vague meaning implied by the same term that is available for common usage. By this I mean, simply, that if I use the term “the future” I can give you a precise definition of this point in time anywhere within a linear chronology following this precise moment: you will finish reading this paragraph sometime in the future, presumably in the near future (a qualified definition, of course. And as in, you will finish reading this paragraph at some linear time after right now. Specifically: right now.
But then — oops — that future we were just reading about just became the past. This is because it is also true to remind you that you very probably just finished reading that paragraph — the previous paragraph — at some point in the very recent past, and that point of which we were just discussing as the future (in that same paragraph) is now, technically speaking, your past and no longer your future.
So, the strict definition of “the future” is useful, but not very useful on a timescale that is not a transitional (as in, when does ‘now’ become ‘then’) type of discussion.
Thus, the other meaning — the vague meaning — implied by the same term I was referencing in that earlier paragraph is the alternative to this: it is less strict, as in we tend to use it to refer to some far off point in time, a time both immeasurable and indistinct. By this I mean, more complexly, that if I use the term “the future” I can write something like: “in the future I’ll be an old man.” But then, while there is still a somewhat definite timeline associated with that sense of “the future,” I’m neither talking about (a) a time in the next few minutes (or even the next few years) nor (b) a time that I myself have a solid conceptual grasp about. I could be considered an old man when I’m fifty (by my daughter, for example) or I may not consider myself an old man until I reach eighty… if I’m fortunate enough to make it there… then… whatever. It’s all the future, far off and indistinct from where I look out into the mists of my linear temporal path, right?
So, when exactly is this “the future” that we all talk about?
This post was written (from two perspectives) in the past: the first perspective is obvious because, simply, it would have been impossible for it to have been written in the future else you could not currently be reading it.
The second perspective is a little more complex, however, in that “the past” of which I now refer is not the familiar recent past. Why? Because this post was written as part of an experiment in the Long Now… a longer-timescale blog, to be exact. Designed to make me (and hopefully you, too) think about things vaster than these short blips of time — those second definition ideas — by tricking readers (myself included) into partaking in the experiment simply by reading these words. It was written at a point (which based on the rules of that experiment I can’t tell you exactly when) that is specifically NOT recently, and (thanks to the wonders of technology and scheduled publication) only appeared as a public post on this blog in a recent time frame (assuming you are dutifully keeping up to date… though that is irrelevant, too.) In other words, it’s both old and new, simultaneously. It is written for now, but a “now” in my future from a “now” in your past. When I wrote it, I had to flip my brain all around to do so: this is all very weird to consider as a result because as I write these words I’m thinking about a version of “the future” that fits my second definition rather than my first as I usually do when I write, while simultaneously writing about a similar inverse version of the past — a not-so-recent past as you read this — neither of which can be known by you, the reader.
Does that make sense? Read it again. Make sure you get your mind around it… I’ll wait.
So, when exactly is “the future,” then? I don’t have an answer, really. It just makes you think…