Sunday, June 26

notes in the direction of a larger work

Centuries and decades are liars. All their temporal precision is a front. If we were paying attention, we would realize that what happens, happens in units like seasons and lifetimes, and happens in places. Nothing ever happened in the 20th Century that didn't happen in New York in winter, Berlin at New Years, Kansas during the wheat harvest.

No matter. The easiest insight available to modern historians and science fiction authors alike is that the last most recent span of history, however delineated, has seen more change in the life of the human animal than any comparable period. Take two centuries or half a dozen lifetimes, and try to quantify the change. It literally defies imagination or calculation. How do you quantify the contents of six billion lives?

My great grandfather went to school in an age of horses and steam driven trains. He died years after men walked on the surface of the moon. In between, he witnessed the proliferation of the automobile and the effective death of the American railroad. He was around before widespread indoor plumbing, the electrical grid, interstate highways, and nationwide telephone service. This is a cheap insight, because it is easily repeated.

In wealthy, technologically advanced societies - in places with infrastructure - every pattern of "normal" human life has been altered in some way. Forget cable television or the Internet. The simple fact that most of us no longer spend most of our time and energy producing food and securing shelter is the embodiment and cause of more fundamental change than those of us who have never tried to survive on the products of our own labor can possibly grasp. The predominance of artificial light has probably changed patterns that are nearly as old as life on Earth.

And yet, for most people, the basic problems of life are in a sense what they have always been: Food, shelter, and fucking. These things are often mediated by technological proxies for time, labor, or material wealth, but they remain. The poetic insight that tempers and humanizes a historical sense of change is that much of the content of human experience is universal.

(A third, Science Fictional insight: This last might not always be true. Human nature has been a constant for most of recorded history, and it's damn hard to change - but we're getting there fast.)