Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Why We Web, Part II: Preservation

Pompeya._Cadáveres_en_Porta_NoceraLong ago there stood a proud Roman city called Pompeii.  Pompeii was a bustling trade hub situated on the coast of Italy near modern-day Naples.  However, Pompeii sat under the merciless grip of a nearby volcano, Mt. Vesuvius.  One day, the volcano erupted and consumed Pompeii and a few small neighboring cities.  The entire city was lain to waste in merely two days from pyroclasitc flow, ash, and fire.  When the city was discovered again in 1748, archaeologists discovered people’s remains preserved in plaster.  Humans were found in the positions they laid in while their homes were destroyed without warning.


Findings like that are rare and seldom seen.  Scientists would practically kill for remains depicting full body representations of actual humans from the past.  It’s amazing to be able to recall a whole civilization based on their remains, especially from their people’s final moments.


Heather once brought up an interesting idea inspired by the remains found at Pompeii.  She hypothesized what it would be like if somehow our entire civilization was devastated in some way that would preserve us in our final moments.  Had this event come as suddenly as the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, surely some people’s last moments would be spent in front of a box of some sort, unaware of their inevitable and nearby demise.  She went on further to discuss what if many years from that catastrophe, someone (someone’s) came along and discovered the remains of our society.  What would they think?  How would the interpret us and what we did?  These are all very interesting questions and I would really like to examine them further.


The Boxes


I need to dwell on “the boxes” I mentioned earlier.  The one’s we’d be found in front of.  We have lots of boxes these days.  We have boxes that tell us the news; boxes that play our music; boxes that help us watch porn get our work done; even boxes that let us stay in touch.  We carry some of these boxes with us, some of them we keep at desks, or on tables, or mounted to the walls, even.  These boxes might as well be our God’s because we don’t seem to want to separate ourselves from the boxes.  We keep the boxes closer to our hearts than most people in the Midwest keep the bible close to theirs.  We stare at these boxes, we depend on them, we are indebted to our boxes.  If that’s not enough to show that these “boxes” of ours are really our Gods, then I don’t know what is.


We have a box that tells us what to think.  We call this box, television.  Television informs us all of what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with us, and the products we need to make it all better.  The television tell us that to be truly happy, we need other boxes.  So we set up these new boxes.  These new boxes let us connect to a network, and from that network we can do so many things.  We call this box a computer, and the network: the Internet.  With the Internet, we can go online and buy all sorts of new and exciting boxes.  Shiny boxes, ones with more specific functions.  There are boxes to store music, boxes to store appointments, boxes that tell us where we are, there are even portable versions of our computers, so we’ll never be without that box.


This is our world.  We live and die by these boxes, as if they were an extension of our selves.  As a society they really have become an extension of the self.  The global self.  Of course, not everyone has an iPod, a Palm Pilot, a laptop with Wi-Fi, and a GPS device, but we’re getting there.  The point is, our society has a passion for it’s boxes.  The technological marvels that purportedly make our lives easier, these boxes would help define us should our remnants be unearthed by some future civilization.


The Molds


We don’t have any ancient Romans lying around to tell us all about Pompeii.  We must rely on what those people left behind.  They left behind documents, frescos, paintings, and etchings.  This was how they archived their civilization.


We’re our archiving our civilization, but we’re doing it on a much larger, and more precise scale.  People today can create an online identity in effigy of themselves.  It’s not so much vanity as it is “creating a back up of ourselves”.  That sounds very high-tech and sci-fi and other hyphenated words, but it’s the truth.  Whether people do it consciously or not, by participating in social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook; posting in forums; using Twitter and weblogs; posting videos of oneself on YouTube; these are all repositories of not just our society as a whole, but as the individual people who make it up.


This goes far beyond the plaster molds of Pompeii.  These are molds that recall our faces, our thoughts, our dreams, and our lives.


Taxonomy


It would be difficult, if not impossible, for any future civilization to understand our social taxonomy.  Our culture today relies so much on independent channels of communication that narrowing down our trends and patterns would be an immense task.  The mere collection of all relevant nodes of context with which we respond to stimuli would be so burdensome, I would imagine anyone who were to attempt such a task would easily be scared away from any further pursuits.  We’ve attempted to do similar things with societies we know less about, but for all we know, it’s all wrong…we couldn’t be more off the ball if we tried.  Who knows?  However, it’s safe to say it would be easier to accomplish the task when applied to ancient civilizations which required manual transit against the obstacles of distance and terrain to transmit messages over any significant distance.  Essentially, you would be analyzing small pockets of context in order to understand the local social hierarchy.


Additionally, personalities, and how they were viewed in ancient civilizations is much easier to pinpoint.  For starters we can only know about figures depicted in documents or art, and in cases like that, if someone felt it was important enough to draw him, let alone write about him, he was important enough that at least few choice people held him in high regards.


Stephen_colbertHowever, for us it’s not as easy.  I can’t think of an effective way to explain what some future historians may deduce about us, but I can say this, they may assume “Stephen Colbert” was a very powerful man (which he may or may not be).


Obviously we’ll never know how we will be preserved.  The data is volatile, and in the case of some major catastrophic event that successfully ends all human life on the planet, the odds of it surviving are slim, but who knows?  Civilizations will always archive themselves, ours is no different.  Our methods only change.  We search for new ways to create our identities.  We extend ourselves into a virtual universe parallel to our own.  This universe is made by man for man, and it holds the key to our society.  It is what will define us in the ages.  It is our web.

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