Every time a leaker like Edward Snowden makes the news, a particular question occurs to me. The person, whoever they are, steps forth with sheafs and sheafs of information; it gets disseminated, and then there’s a cat-and-mouse game where the authorities try to figure out what to do with him. The usual.
But there’s always the information itself, and the odd fact that it usually seems to land with a thud. Here it is – the worst has happened, from a national security point of view – and yet most people can’t be bothered to summarize it at the most basic executive level, or form any kind of opinion about it. It’s just there, it’s information – but beyond that, the level of caring for the object that’s at the center of the radiation blast is extremely low. In the end it’s basically a shoulder shrug and a so what.
There’s a lesson in this, about information.
Information needs a delivery system to nurture and sustain it to survive. There are all these sci-fi movies about lonely planets littered with the ruins of ancient civilizations, where the peon natives scrape the dirt beneath gleaming buried porticos; in a way, we live in one.
There are entire collective advanced ways of viewing the world, in recent memory, encoded in bookshelves, art, cultural practices, that keep getting mowed under and trash compacted because they’e lost their ancestors and there’s not enough of a core to keep them alive. So they die. Eons of this, repeating itself endlessly.
You could stock your mind easily with furniture a century old, reading material, hobbies, practices; or go farther back, a millenium back, sleep on a bed of many-centuried stories, mix and match as much as you want. A lot has been lost – that science fiction angle – without the chain of people to pass it on, but there’s so much of it that you can still reconstitute entire lifestyles in a reusable form. We live in those ruins, and soon we will be them.
As we age, we become aware that those new things that are ceaselessly made, that are being threshed include us, include the cultures we were born into, losing the heat of being cool and starting to sink under the waves.
It’s a little awe-inspiring to read a book, say, written a few hundred years ago, and realize what a fully realized world there was there, and then ponder how it’s vanished now. And that’s just one leaf on a tree that’s shedding all the time, even now, this very moment. Things from the 80’s that brought up interested questions that will never get answered, because the layers are pushing them every farther away.
There will be a time when Justin Timberlake is 70 years old, with people saying he should retire, and some new culture-makers proclaiming, in a condescending, backhanded fashion, he’s still got it! Of course he won’t – the very fact that you have to be sold on this, that it’s not immediately apparent, means he’s a goner. And that’s just a glaringly obvious target at the top of a very large iceberg, melting faster every day.
All of our cultures are dying; we are, too. Our task is to reclaim as much of that as we can, and make it beautiful for the time that we have it, before Saturn – that is to say, time – eats us all again.