At some point during my grad school experience of taking philosophy classes, the futility of this goal settled in. Even if the most famous among us extend themselves in some way beyond the time of their actual life, at some point in the future they will completely cease to exist. Even if there remains a sign of that person the signifier will be no more. Over the long now, memory dies away.
This was an initially difficult pill to swallow, but ultimately a liberating one. After all, if even Julius Caesar will someday cease to exist or have meaning, what is the point in chasing this sort of hollow “immortality”?
Fast-forward to today. As computers and the Internet begin capturing and codifying so many artifacts/moments/facts/etc. of humanity, the collective memory of what was and is here on Earth is getting longer. It is still ultimately terminal, but the infants of today can expect an almost shocking amount of “institutional memory” about them, ranging from written words to pictures to videos.
What is interesting to me is, by contrast, the way and degree to which older things are being left behind and have missed this particular boat. Here are some examples that I’ve been thinking about recently:
1. My grandfathers. They were both, during their time, world-famous men. My maternal grandfather, Morton Neipp, ran the democratic party in the state of Ohio, helped prosecute the mob out of my hometown of Toledo, and was personal friends with the top politicos of his day, including LBJ, RFK and Hubert Humphrey. In Toledo he was particularly well-known, and I became accustomed to multiple people coming up and shaking his hand when he would take me out to lunch. To this day I own an eclectic collection of trinkets from those relationships of his, such as whiskey glasses bearing the U.S. presidential seal, cuff links bearing the U.S. vice presidential seal, and countless newspaper clippings and stories about his exploits. Yet, according to Google, a search for “Morton Neipp” returns a scant 28 records. 28!
By contrast is my paternal grandfather, Siegfried Knemeyer. Even more internationally famous in his day, Siegfried invented the first-ever handheld flight computer and was known as the “Stargazer” in the German Luftwaffe due to his visionary and creative solutions to aeronautical challenges. By the end of World War 2 he ran the entire RLM (Reich Air Ministry) and was overseeing the work of Wernher Von Braun, who went on to architect the U.S. space program. After the war he was brought over to the United States where he helped pioneer next-generation airplane cockpit design, following his philosophy of designing for the ease and usability of the pilot. He was legitimately the finest mind in his field, a field that was arguably the most technologically and advanced transportation industry of the 20th century. He knew Charles Lindbergh and many of the other aviation luminaries of his day. Today, there exist 85 records for “Siegfried Knemeyer” on Google. 85!
These are only two examples, the examples that I am most personally familiar with and cognizant of. They made their names between the 1930s and 1960s. And today they are almost forgotten. Unless I or someone else who cares enough (read: family member) gets around to memorialize either of these men on Wikipedia or some other digital source(s) that would extend their essence, they are already close to being forgotten. If they had lived just one generation later, they would be remembered in many thousands of instances. They simply missed the digital cliff.
2. I’m something of an information junkie, and a bit of a historian. So with the things I’m interested in, I tend to poke around and look under the hood and try to get as much information as I can. Two examples of this are with movies and music. For example, when I’m watching a movie, I will simultaneously research the actors, director, and all of the various leads that spring from them on resources like imdb.com and Wikipedia. And the juxtaposition between the contemporary versus the past is significant. Jon-Erik Hexum, an actor who died in an on-set accident in 1984, does not even have a picture on IMDB despite being one of the hottest actors around at the time of his premature death. Meanwhile, a perfectly fine but ultimately unimportant actress like Ileana Douglas has 64 pictures in the system. Hexum simply missed the digital age, and the relative decay of his being and memory are greatly accelerated because of it.
Every day, things are being forgotten. At greatest risk now from a movie or music perspective would be pre-World War 2 artifacts, those that clearly pre-dated digital technology and which are not necessarily historically important enough to be remembered beyond those who actually experienced them. As each older person dies or ceases to remember, that serves as the end of those artifacts. Other than the synthesis of new things that were built on their being, they have completely ceased to exist. Digital technology might be slowing this process, particularly in years ahead when normally it would be only within memories or long-lost books that these things still exist. But now, today, there is this bizarre chasm between the reams of information being collected on the mundane and un-notable of today, even as things of (relative recent) past value and importance vanish.
3. I continue to get amazing, insightful emails from people who used to know my father many years ago and learned recently that he passed away, in many cases discovering this only through my website. For those past generations, those who haven’t en masse signed up for Facebook/LinkedIn/MySpace and other types of online services, they are unlikely to find or connect with one another in life. There is not institutionalized behaviour, pattern, expectation and method from which to find and communicate with each other. Whereas it would be impossible for me to imagine not being a couple of clicks away from contacting anyone from my past, for older generations those same, seamless channels don’t exist. They are left to the traditional and seemingly quaint “method” of maybe or maybe not reconnecting with old friends, maybe or maybe not learning that old friends have passed away. In observing this happen with my father’s peer group in the wake of his death, I’m struck by the poignancy and sadness of this. If only I could help turn back time and give my father one last chance to meet those people again, to reminisce one last time, to share what they mutually meant to one another. But time marches on. It will never happen. If nothing else, please learn from my lack of opportunity and encourage your own parents to seek out and re-connect with those that matter to them!
As I learned some 12 years ago now in graduate school, decay and disappearance is the eventual destiny of everyone and everything. But especially in these examples, in things that are still nearly removed, and intensely personal, and directly relevant to not just our memories but our lives today, the disappearance and obsolescence certainly matters. Again in the wake of my father’s death, and as I am now a middle-aged adult who is trying to understand their cosmic place in the long now, I find myself railing against the boundaries of time. What I wouldn’t give to get one evening with Morton, or one evening with Siegfried. The questions I have for them as an adult, as a fully formed person who wants to better understand the seeds from which I spawned, really matter and would provide me with insight and tools completely incommensurate with the relatively brief time being spent with those people would require. To see their facial expressions! Hear their voice inflection! To understand what motivated them, and who and what they became! Similarly, I wonder who my great great great grandfather was? What could I learn from him? How could I bend time to have that conversation?
Sadly, for me, these channels and paths will likely never exist. But perhaps through these newfangled digital technologies I can leave some record or capturing of myself that enlightens my far future offspring. Rather than chasing immortality for its own sake, I now appreciate the importance of communication and continuity through generations, and fully understand the power and significance that a detailed record of previous generations can shine onto and into those that follow. How and if I am able to eventually capitalize on that remains to be seen, and I can only hope that my making the time and taking the action precedes my death and the immediate and eventual decay that will necessarily follow, until I am also, finally, forgotten by history.