Sunday, October 10, 2010

Out of Time

If I could go back to the Medieval period having fully prepared myself by reading up on Medieval culture and technologies, I would still get there and be a big dummy* when it comes to daily routines and the ordinary tools of living. No amount of reading can take the place of having grown up with certain memes and tools knowing that they are the essential ideas and tools of life (for you in your era)**.
*I love the show Mythbusters, but one of the things that irritates me about that show is when they take on stories about past technologies ("could Medieval people have built a catapult from a tree that would hurl a man over a city wall?"); they always assume that if people living hundreds of years ago could do it, then two model-builders and a roboticist should be able to do it (in a week) easily. This ignores the reality that past craftsmen would be better with the tools and materials of their own time than we future people are (and would have more manpower and more time to devote to the project, too). Coming later in the timeline doesn't make you superior at all things, only superior at your own things. We're better with plastics. They were no doubt better with wood.
**You're not likely to think of this parenthetical; in fact, you're more likely to think that the customs and tools you grew up with are the "right" ones, and anything that comes to replace them must be wicked and wrong and dangerous. That's just human nature.
So even if you could go to 1499, you couldn't be a person who grew up in the 1480s.

I've been thinking about this lately: my place in time. I was born in 1975 and I'm 35 now. My life, like all our lives, is a window of consciousness during which I get to witness and participate in a fragment of human history. Before 1975 I did not exist. After the as yet unknown date of my death I will not exist. But for now I can learn of past things, experience present things, and imagine future things.

I know enough about the past to know I missed a lot, including some things that I wish I could have experienced. For example, it would be pretty amazing to be a part of the generation who lived without television and then lived with it. The rest of us can't have that experience. We can't compare the world of flashing talking screens with the world that lacked that stimulation. Or the world before cars. Being among those who lived a while without automobiles and then saw them arrive would be really interesting. But we cannot be people of other times. The only thing we can do is read stories and novels written in the past by people of those eras and try to get inside their minds.

I grew up in a world where telephones were assigned to households, weighed pounds, were leased from the phone company, and were decidedly located at one place in the house. A ringing phone was a (loud) question mark -- there was no way of knowing who was calling. And if you pulled a seven-digit number from your prodigious mental catalog of numbers and made a phone call (pressing or turning every number, for autodial did not yet exist), you might get a busy signal, because there was no call waiting, and you might just hear it ring and ring and ring, because very few people had answering machines.

Part of my window on human existence has been watching the meaning of "phone" change from a big dumb clumsy box assigned to a household to a clever little gadget assigned to a person. People born in the past 10 years or so have witnessed a very different window. For them, a phone was "a thing they shared" only briefly, only in the embarrassing stage of non-personhood at the very start of their lives. To them, you own a phone because you are a real person who real people would want to talk to and have a relationship with. The phone is a part of the self, the part of the self that connects you to everyone else.

You see where I'm going with this: it's not like the technologies change and we stay the same. We change with them. The kind of people we are and how we see the world changes as the objects change, and as what they mean to us changes. So even if you could travel back in time, you could never be "of" the destination you've traveled to. You would be as useless with past technologies as future ones.

Future ones. And that is the thing, isn't it? We all are time-travelers. We just travel in a way so ordinary we choose not to think of it as time travel. But I've been to 1980 and 1988 and 1996 and 2003 and today. Sure I've only known those times from my narrow and shallow near-point in space-time, but what could any of us ever know, even with a TARDIS, but the tiny plot of 1499 we happened to land in? The real world experience is fundamentally the same as the fantasy, except that we only travel forward in time, and only very slowly.

As we move forward in time, we encounter different worlds and different people, people who couldn't have have existed in previous eras and maybe can never exist again. And there are a few ways to explore: we can (1) compare everything we encounter to the world we grew up with and reject and attack and refuse everything new, we can (2) embrace the new and delight in it, even though we know it will never be native to us, not native as it is to the younger ones of this newer time, for whom it is as it has always been, or (3) we can do a bit of both.***
***I don't mean to get political, but obviously there's a correlation between these attitudes (as applied not just to technology but to people) and the categories "conservative," "liberal," and the mixed bag of "independent," "moderate," and "not interested" that comes from doing a bit of both.
Whatever we choose, the fact remains: by the time we are old, we are people out of time.

A person who grew up in the 1930s and decided that the culture and technology of that period was the "right" way has been getting further from "right" every day of his life. The change may be slow, but that doesn't affect the mind's ability to hold the two eras side-by-side and determine that every difference is a defect. To this person, the past is a haven of perfection, lost. The present is a hell of ignorance and stupidity (for the newer people don't know all the "important" things -- the things that were important in the 1930s). He glows with superiority, but still it is an unhappy end.

A person who grew up in the 1930s and decided that new things are neat, if alien, and he's interested, is a time-traveler too, but a happier kind. He is still a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by alien customs and foreign ways, but he gamely tries and tries out things, tasting new foods, speaking new words, employing new tools, puzzling over new entertainments. It's little different from a permanent vacation in 1499 -- would you make the best of it?

And I suggest that this is a conscious choice we make. And I suggest that one of these two options is better than the other. I suggest that no one can, by force of will, or force of fear, or force of repulsion, stop history, and so no one should try. I suggest that if we're all strapped to the time machine anyway, it is better to be a curious and open-hearted traveler than an ignorant and enfeebled alien with fantasies of superiority.

I say, where's this world going? Who knows. But I'm along for the ride.

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