September 4, 2011

Thinking about judgy grandkids

Early modern historians wrestle with a paucity of evidence and generally end up trying to say quite a bit with very little to go on. Historians of the 20th-century have the opposite problem. By many measures--not necessarily all--the amount of potential historical evidence created today outpaces that of entire centuries only a few hundred years ago. I think constantly about what kind of evidence we're leaving behind of ourselves, and how it will be interpreted by later cultures.

How much, I wonder, will survive and in what form? Though I'm no sign-waving apocalypticist (<---made-up word), I don't find the total collapse of our civilization an impossibility. It's conceivable that the digital world we've constructed could be permanently and irrevocably lost. When I entertain such thoughts, I find suddenly terrifying our digitizing of everything. In this potential future, some historian will no doubt pen some eloquent lines about our Eternal-Sunshine-esque erasure of worlds, our deliberate and orderly destruction of the evidence of our existence.*

*In this potential future of my invention, historians and the written word and a script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will naturally survive. Not sure about journalism.

Aside from such grim thoughts, fertile possibilities of cultural foreignness abound. My mind meanders from questions of overarching moral legacy (human rights, abortion, Axe commercials) to Nicholson Baker details (bottled water, keyboard alphabets, Axe commercials). As a rule, I avoid going the easy "THEY'LL WONDER ABOUT THOSE DAMN LOLCATZ HAHA" route. Still, I can't help but wonder if historians and history students a century down the road will get "fuckyeah" tumblrs or gifs, seeing as I can't exactly explain what makes them great myself.

No doubt these future examiners will see certain elements of our culture as barbaric and patently wicked. After all, there's not a time period or a place in history where we don't find glaring immoralities to judge. There are some obvious candidates: nationalism, Fox News, OFWGKTA, hippies. Still, I place no faith in a progressive understanding of history (<---not a political statement), so perhaps they'll find representative government astonishingly uncivilized, the no-moral-of-the-story morality of the Wire horrifying, the narcissism of rock'n'roll disgusting. Or Tina Fey.

At the end of last year I wrote that Tina Fey's not-controversial-except-to-neocon-pundits joke about Mark Twain might actually be a brilliant anticipation of the totally unfair ways we'll be judged by our descendants. And it's that unpredictability--turning a prescient, humane condemnation of racism into racism itself--that makes me think worrying too much about our grandchildren's judgment is a waste of time. They'll probably have bad taste.

After Chase invited me to join the blog, I batted around a number of ideas for a first post. Most of them involved cheesy "tribute to ____" ideas (Tucson, my bike, the Sad Bear apartment, etc.) or ill-advised attempts to Think Deeply About Pop Music. My semester had just started, however, so I'm stuck with thoughts about history. Originally I composed a rather pompous piece of self-indulgence about the internal contradictions of writing "history from below" but decided no one really wants to read that. Instead you're stuck with the preceding pseudo-philosophical-historical gibberish. Anyway, I'm happy to be here and pleased to have been invited. -Mark



Blogger Chase said...

Nice post, Mark. I think it's thought-provoking, and it made me laugh. A nice remedy for a lazy Labor Day weekend Sunday in which I've done nothing but practice brain-deadism all day (with the exception of reading my newspaper).

I kept thinking about Nicholson Baker's short essay about the Dewey Decimal Classification system while reading this, so I'm glad you actually brought up Baker.

Also, I've been flooded with GIFs lately. Notable ones include this one and this one.

September 4, 2011 at 5:13 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I knew how to cut and paste those cool gifs.

September 4, 2011 at 7:42 PM 
Blogger K. Janke said...

I just read an article about Stonehenge in an old National Geographic I got at a yard sale.
Considering the potential erasure of our digital history, Stonehenge begins to look like a pretty good idea. But then again, it presents the same problems you've just laid out: no one knows what it means.

I often think about ruins. Roman and Egyptian ruins, for instance, are rather beautiful, I think. You know, crumbling stone and all that. But what about rusty metal I-beams and heaps of vinyl siding? Pink Panther insullation overgrown with vines? Will future Romantics be able to brood over that? But then again, as you said, they'll probably have bad taste, so maybe they'll make out all right.

September 5, 2011 at 11:35 AM 
Blogger K. Janke said...

I forgot to add, I'm all for "apocalypticist." If it's not a word, it should be.

September 5, 2011 at 11:37 AM 

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