The Next Step
The Twentieth Century is the last time that human technology can be looked at, picked up, understood and used just as it is. We can go back quite a ways before a knife would be unintelligible to a proto-human. Probably Lucy would have understood it and figured out how to use it, even if the technology was completely beyond her. A stone-age flint arrow head speaks clearly to us. A five thousand year old helmet, or axe, or hearth is perfectly familiar. When we unearth a horde of coins we understand exactly what they are, and why they were hidden. We can tease out the meanings of ancient scripts, look at paintings and drawings and sculptures made tens of thousands of years ago.
An ordinary man of the nineteenth century, of ordinary intelligence, with an ordinary education, would likely be able to understand and use inventions one hundred years in his future: he could make sense of a phonograph record and wind-up record player, and probably get it to play. A strip of motion picture film is, after a bit of thought, obviously a sequence of actions that, if viewed quickly convey the illusion of motion. Machines still looked like machines, with gears and levers and energy sources and moving parts that make sense.
We've moved beyond that: nothing we use makes sense by itself. A credit card, a cell phone, a compact disc, a computer, a light-emitting diode, a Taser, solar panel, a flashlight battery. Not one of these will be of any obvious utility one thousand years from now. None of the information will be accessible, none of the tools will be useful. A bow and arrow will still be a weapon, an AR-15 will not. A trumpet will still be playable, my electronic musical library will not. A printed book, or carved inscription, or hand-written shopping list will be readable, my eBook will not.
On an air voyage over water, there comes a point beyond which there is no turning back, where you must continue on or die. We have reached that point of no return. Each rung of the ladder that we grasp is picked up from beneath our feet and placed at the top. There is no going back, and a fall from this height would be fatal.
Perhaps we are entering a dark stage from which we will emerge in a few decades or centuries. Perhaps our rapidly evolving culture will stabilize and begin leaving intelligible traces, readable messages, useable tools, cultural artifacts that will last as long as a stone ax or a gold coin or a baked clay tablet. Perhaps not, and we will live in a permanent technological now, as fragile as gossamer. Perhaps we will run out of fuel and plunge into the ocean of time never to be seen or heard from again. Perhaps all that will remain of us will be stone knives, brass trumpets and dry bones.
(January 3, 2013)
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