I had the privilege of meeting my great grandmother once, before she passed at the old age of 97. I was 12 years old at the time, and before we parted ways she sat me down on her lap and gave me five words of wisdom. “Just keep on goin’, child”, she said. She explained to me that no matter how hard life may get, you have to “just keep on going.” As simple as these words were, they’ve resonated with me since that day and guided me in life. I remember being fascinated by how old she was, and feeling as if I was being given this wisdom from an ancient being. That interaction being my only memory of her, I was left wanting more. I wanted to know what kind of life she lived, the friendships she had, and the circumstances she endured that led her to give me those specific words on her way out of this world.
Knowing our ancestry is something that has intrigued us humans since the dawn of history. We want to glean from the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors, that can only come from their specific time period and from their unique perspective. We want to remember the names and lives of our ancient family members, perhaps as a way to better understand ourselves. This obsession with remembering our ancestors dates back to ancient history. One of the clearest examples is found in the Bible, with the extensive genealogies that record hundreds of years of history. Man’s ability to understand the past is only made possible through his desire to document the present so that future generations can remember, and as technology has improved, so has our ability to “immortalize” our lives.
To understand where we are now, we must first understand where we came from.
It wasn’t until around 3400-3200 B.C. that the first major communicatory development happened in human history, which was the invention of written language. Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs were the earliest writing forms, however, coherent texts didn’t appear until 2600 B.C. Written script allowed for history to be relayed in a way that was more accurate, and less prone to exaggeration.
Once written language was established, it remained as the only way to tell stories and document history for thousands of years. It wasn’t until 1839, when the French photographer Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre released the Daguerreotype Medium (the first ever commercially released camera), that humans experienced the next major change in the way history was documented. The daguerreotype printed photos onto small, shiny copper plates – the lustrous portraits it produced terrifying the people who first saw them. The ease of being able to reproduce one’s own likeness in a way that was forever immortalized elicited fear in the hearts of the common man. In the United States, it wasn’t until photographers started displaying portraits of famous leaders throughout society, that the medium of photography became accepted as commonplace.
Soon the daguerreotype was being used around the world, with thousands of middle class people getting self-portraits of themselves and of loved ones. For the first time ever, people would be able to actually see what their ancestors looked like, instead of just read about them. Photography would soon evolve into motion pictures, each new technological advancement bringing with it a deeper way to document a time period and the people alive during it. However, at this point, everything was still subject to decay. Ink would fade from paper, and old film reels would gather dust. Genealogies could be damaged or lost in fires, and pictures would slowly lose their resolution with exposure to the sun.
Flash forward to now, 2017 where we are well into the age of information. The internet brought with it blogs, email, and social media– all things that don’t decay with the passing of time, but instead are archived perfectly. With the global use of social media, for the first time in history, humans are documenting nearly their entire lives. Our timelines are essentially autobiographies that reveal huge amounts of information about who we are as people. Every meme we post, every song or video we link to, every like we leave, and every person we follow all tell a little bit of our story. Our photos are stamped with the exact location, time, and date the photo was taken, and facial recognition software tells us who the people in the photos are. Our profiles reveal our family members as well, so in the future, learning about your family heritage will be as easy as following a few links. Genealogies are being formed naturally, and without any additional effort from anyone. People now have the ability to document their lives in a way that was previously only afforded to celebrities and the very wealthy.
All of these new technologies, the internet, social media, and smartphones, are not only changing the way we live our daily lives – they are changing the way that future generations will look at the past. When the children of the future want to learn about their grandparents, they won’t have to rummage through old boxes in the attic to find granddad’s journal. Instead they’ll be able to browse an ancient site called Twitter, where he made near daily “journal entries”, each under 140 characters. They’ll be able to check Facebook to understand his sense of humor through the things he posted, and see the profiles of all the friends and family he had. With more than 2 billion people (and counting) across the globe using social media, from this point forward humans of the future will be able to experience human history, and more specifically, their own genealogies, in a richer way than ever before in history.
Here in 2017, every human with a phone in their pocket is serving as a historian. For the first time, history isn’t being told by the academic, or the filmmaker, or the playwright – it is being told by the average person, from their own unique perspective. Instead of getting just one side of the historical perspective, we’re getting all perspectives all at once. This large scale documentation of life through pictures, live video, tweets, Facebook posts, memes, and blogs, is creating a historical record of this time period that is more in depth and thorough than humans have ever experienced.
With our technology advancing at such an alarming rate, it begs the question, is everything we’re leaving behind anything more than just hand prints on a cave wall? Will the photos, and tweets, and blogs that we leave behind have any sort of relevance in the future, or will the next humans view us how we view the ones who left their marks upon the walls of caves? John F. Kennedy summed up the current speed of technological growth perfectly in his 1962 speech now titled, “We choose to go to the Moon”.
In his own words, “No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power. Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight. This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.”