Gongol.com Archives: January 2024

Brian Gongol

January 18, 2024

No small share of the story of human civilization has been created by people whose personal quest for meaning centered on achieving such fame that they would leave an indelible mark on history. Benjamin Franklin's words were, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." It's hard to get figures like Alexander the Great unless they are motivated -- at least somewhat -- by the quest for immortal fame. ■ Even among much more ordinary people, the desire to be remembered is strong. It motivates us to celebrate holidays like the Dia de los Muertos, to record life passages in keepsakes like family Bibles, and to give money for the naming rights to everything from park benches to college campuses. ■ Two factors make this well-established quest a little peculiar today. First is the tremendous uncertainty created by digitization: On one hand, it has never been easier or cheaper to record or store a memory. On the other hand, it has never been easier to simply lose those recordings -- possibly forever. ■ Tim Harford tells a haunting "cautionary tale" about just how few missteps it takes for documentary evidence to get lost forever, especially when it's captured in digital form. Scrappy efforts like the Internet Archive give the illusion that someone is formally responsible for making sure we don't lose the collective memory of the Internet, but most of that work is done by goodwill rather than accountable mandate. ■ The second peculiar factor is that, at least by some estimates, a substantial share of the people who have ever lived are alive right now -- 8 billion out of a total of 117 billion in all time. If accurate, that would mean 7% of everyone needing to be remebered is still present among us now. That somehow makes the task seem both more enormous and beyond reach and yet also more plausible than thought.

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