I spent two weeks in Spain last month, on vacation with my wife, and, like most tourists, we marveled at the Europeans’ ability to preserve their ancient heritage--Roman walls, Moorish palaces and mosques, Gothic cathedrals and so much more.
Perhaps unlike most tourists, I got to thinking about the instant disposability of our own culture, especially in the realm known as high tech. What will our culture look like to people a hundred years from now, or even a thousand years from now?
The United States is uniquely unburdened by history, of course--what we find relevant to our own times is rarely older than a quarter-century. But our vision of the future doesn’t extend very far either. When we say that the future is impossible to predict because technology is changing so rapidly, we implicitly give technology the most important role in determining what our heirs’ world will look like.
Consider an unlikely contrast: Moore’s Law and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.
Moore’s Law, proposed by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, is the observation--now popularly viewed as nearly a law of nature--that computer chip density will double about every eighteen months, resulting in exponential growth in processing power in very short intervals.
This “law” has held true for 30 years, although it is less a law than an expression of how chip manufacturers invest their money--these engineers, like us, now expect this growth, and they devote their energies to ensuring that it happens.
This gives us microcomputers that become more or less obsolete in a matter of months, or at least a couple of years, to the point that many usable machines are considered all but worthless because of their inferior chips.
Antonio Gaudi’s eye-popping Sagrada Familia cathedral, on the other hand, was started in 1895 and is still under construction. In fact, the builders have a long way to go. While most significant cathedrals of the Romanesque or Gothic periods took more than a hundred years, sometimes 200 years, to complete, the Sagrada Familia cathedral may be unique in the modern world. Who can imagine someone in the U.S. proposing a project that would take three or more generations to finish? This contrast says a lot about who we are and maybe about what we will leave to posterity.
Someone who has been thinking about this issue in the last few years is Austin, Texas-based science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. He and a friend, Richard Kadrey, launched the Dead Media Project in 1995, in part to educate people about patterns of extinction in technology and communications media.
(The Dead Media Project is mostly conducted via an Internet mail listserv with about 300 subscribers worldwide, but information can be found on several Web pages, such as https://www.peg.apc.org/~obelisk/media/rave.html and https://www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades/deadmed.html). “Our culture is experiencing a profound radiation of new media,” Sterling told an audience of computer artists in 1995. “The new media is aswarm with lumbering toothy digital mammals. It’s all lynxes here, and gophers there, plus big, fat venomous Web crawlers, appearing in Pleistocene profusion.”
Sterling generally considers this a good thing, but something with an inherent danger: Blind ignorance about how many forms of communications and computational media have died and gone to the bit-boneyard in the sky.
He and the other contributors to the Dead Media Project have been collecting a fascinating array of such dinosaurs, many with comically baroque names: the Phenakistoscope, the Teleharmonium, the Telefon Himondo, Gaumont’s Chronophone and the Antikythera Device. Not to mention computers like the Altair, the Xerox Alto, the PC Junior, Ataris, Commodores, Sinclairs, Osbornes, Northstars, DECmates, ad infinitum.
Richard Garriott, founder and vice president of Origin Systems, the computer game company in Austin, once admitted that he had to “scrounge around” for the parts for an old Apple II just to review his first programs. Vast seas of data have been lost because the operating systems used to create them are long forgotten and unused. That’s likely to continue.
“Think of it this way,” Sterling says. “How long will it be before the much-touted interface of the World Wide Web is itself a dead medium? And what will become of all those billions of thoughts, words, images and expressions poured onto the Internet?”
In fact, a form of this happens every day, as Web pages mutate and die, replaced with new buzzing bits with the life span of ladybugs. I thought about these things as I gazed on the incomparably beautiful design of the poetry of the Koran represented in plaster stucco on the walls of the Alhambra, work done about 1,100 years ago. Those craftsmen left words for the ages.
But hundreds of thousands of people in our time, perhaps even millions, spend their working lives creating things that disappear in days, months or even minutes. Buckminster Fuller saw this about 30 years ago and called it “the ephemeralization of work.”
What will we leave behind that will truly last? “Nuclear waste dumps,” offers Sterling, darkly. “Extinct species. Chernobyl.” He finds some hope in the fact that our leaders these days are talking about the future instead of Armageddon. But he also sees irony in the link between these leaders and an economy that is constantly spewing out new things and plowing near-new things under. We talk about the future, but we build and buy for next month.
In 1492, when the last sultan to occupy the Alhambra palace was forced out by the Christian armies, it is said he stopped at a nearby hill and wept, having been cast out of paradise. The reason he wept is still compelling, more than 500 years later. What in our own civilization could we say that about? Will everything we’re so busy building vanish soon? Will we weep when it disappears?
Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.