Revising The Future of the Past

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 4.25

“An epidemic in that year provided a break from other problems.”

Pestilentia eo anno aliarum rerum otium praebuit.

Today Nandini Pandey has a smart piece out in Eidolon (“Classics After Coronavirus“) where she asks a group of people who see different perspectives of Classical Studies to think about what impact COVID-19 will have on the future of these disciplines. (And it is smart not because she asked me to write something for it, but because she got a group of really smart other people to write thoughtfully in the midst of a crises: check out the article for good prognostications by Joy Connolly, Sarah Bond, Amy Pistone, Del A. Maticic, Scott Lepisto, Michelle Bayouth, Mira Seo and Shelley P. Halley”).

It’s no secret around my house that I think about these things a lot. Really, I am one or two turns in life away from being straight-up prepper. And I may be breaking a little alarmist here, but I worry that COVID-19 is merely a dress-rehearsal for the ravages of climate change, which may well include new pandemics in additional to destabilized weather. Even more frightening, old pandemics and viruses could find new life our changing environment.

At least, this is what science fiction says: archaeologists in Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book resurrect the boubonic plague while plying their craft. It’s not all bad: Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio presents an ancient retrovirus that hastens the next stage in human evolution. But, really, apart from that, it gets pretty bad: the worst usually comes when man conspires with nature as in the famous apocalypse of Stephen King’s The Stand or the vampire trilogy by Justin Cronin (The Passage, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors) which centers, gulp, around academics playing with life and death in places like Cambridge, MA and New York City.

My point is not that we should keep hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but that I think my comments in the Eidolon piece do not go nearly far enough because, as I think Scott Lepisto is starting to say, we need radical change fast and we’re not talking about Classics. If there is a silver lining in this shitberg our current leadership is piloting straight towards, it is that we might just get hurt enough to change our ways, to avoid the worst of what could come.

Or, well, that’s what I say so I can sleep tonight. At the end of it, the fact is that we are more likely to see a civilization shifting cataclysm now than five years ago. And we should be thinking about what that means for the way we talk about the past.

So here’s a re-post from last year.

*     *     *     *

In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.

Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.

Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.

The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognota series or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”

ὁ μὲν γὰρ Θετταλοῖς περὶ Ἄρνης δοθεὶς χρησμὸς ἐκέλευε φράζειν: “κωφοῦ τ᾿ ἀκοὴν τυφλοῖό τε δέρξιν”  Plutarch, Obsolesence Of Oracles (Moralia 432)

A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.

For the sake of argument (and acceding to science), let’s say that we should be preparing for one of the worst-case scenarios. While it would be great if all of us consumed less, recycled more, and gave up internal combustion engines, the fact is that late-stage capitalism is an out of control freight train which no single government or group of governments appears to have the will or the resources to slow down. The vast majority of all world carbon pollution is perpetrated not by billions of human beings making bad decisions each day, but by the profit-driven interests of a hundred corporations. We are not going to stop this with anything short of massive collective and revolutionary action.

“What is worst from bygone days provides the best safeguard for the future.”

ὃ γάρ ἐστι χείριστον αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ παρεληλυθότος χρόνου, τοῦτο πρὸς τὰ μέλλοντα βέλτιστον ὑπάρχει, Demosthenes, Philippic 1.2

In the meantime, maybe some of us should be looking past that destructive horizon to what comes next. I don’t do this cynically—there is a part of me that thinks the neo-fascist maniacs who are creating concentration camps and clamoring for border control now are rehearsing for the inevitable migrations caused by climate change and attempting to habituate an American populace to the murder and carnage needed to survive in that apocalyptic contraction scenario. By pursuing an insane set of policies, the very actors who deny climate change is happening are actively bringing it about. Yes, I do suspect there are those who would rather dehumanize and slaughter other human beings rather than make difficult decisions and sacrifice a standard of living now.

(And, truth be told, a disturbing number of Americans seem ok with this).

“if you find good luck in the time that is left
Perhaps it will be solace for the things in the past”

εἰ καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ τῆς τύχης εὐδαίμονος
τύχοιτε, πρὸς τὰ πρόσθεν ἀρκέσειεν ἄν.

Euripides, Helen 698-699

My question is: what are we of learned societies doing to plan for the collapse of the social and political infrastructure that has produced the deepest learning for the broadest number of people in the history of humankind? For those who study the ancient world and the way that earlier societies have dealt with change, we must ask ourselves what is the future of the past and what ability do we still have to shape it.

Asking this question, of course, leads to a series of ancillary concerns which in themselves are likely useful to debate. With only a little scrutiny, it is clear that this coming challenge is unlike anything we have faced before (with the exception, perhaps, of the Late Bronze Age Collapse as some have imagined it). To the contrary of popular imagination, antiquity never fell: instead, it went through a period of transformations, stalled cultural developments, geographical shifts, and technological change under the influence of new religions, mass migrations, social senescence and, perhaps, even climate change.

Indeed, to think about the “future of the past” we need to consider the “past” of the past and its present status. We have spent nearly 700 years ‘reconstructing’ a past that never actually existed. Take, for instance, the textual wealth contained within the Loeb Classical Library: no figure or library ever possessed all of this collective knowledge in one place prior to the 20th century. In fact, I would be hard pressed to imagine that there were more than a handful of individuals in the ancient world who had access to 20% of it.

As Classicists we often can be found lamenting everything we don’t have, the imagined texts we have lost and whose titles alone give some indication of their promise. But we do not often enough stop to consider how remarkable it is that we have as much as we do and how much we have intervened and produced since the Renaissance to create what we now consider Classical knowledge. Contemplating and then gaming out how to preserve the past we have now can help us better understand the processes that occurred over the past 1000 years and the extent to which they have created a tremendously biased if not mostly fictionalized view of the past.

“It is undoubtedly foolish to be unhappy today simply because you may be unhappy in the future.”

est sine dubio stultum, quia quandoque sis futurus miser, esse iam miserum, Seneca EM 3.3

There are, then, important differences between earlier epochal shifts and this. First, the “loss” of antiquity that occurred from the building of the first Museion at Alexandria, through its multiple burnings, civil wars in Rome, sacks of the city, the ‘decline and fall’ of the empire, and the sack of Byzantium by Christian crusaders, was a slow attrition and loss by neglect. If there were more texts and art works available in 200 CE than there were in 1200 CE, it is because (1) of what we are counting as mattering and (2) a generally higher standard of living and access to resources to a non-religious leisure class in the earlier period.

An unvarnished examination of the recovery of Classical knowledge must acknowledge that the Renaissance was not a recuperation of all of antiquity, but a selective curation of its remains. What we face with the next possible civilizational collapse is the loss of the knowledge that has been reconstructed and the tremendous body of work we have produced since then. Where a 15th Century humanist had but a handful of manuscripts of Homer to worry about, we have dozens plus the papyri fragments, plus the commentaries, original and edited scholia introductions, monographs, articles, and edited texts with critical apparatus we have created over centuries.

And that’s just Homer. I am not saying that I am turning full doomsday prepper on you, but I am saying that we should take the threat of civilizational collapse seriously and that it is not just within our remit as academic classicists to make some plans for how the material of the past might survive to benefit future generations and to provide a record of what came before our era, but it is our responsibility to be having these conversations now.

“I think that it is clear to everyone that it is not in our nature to predict the future”

Οἶμαι γὰρ ἅπασιν εἶναι φανερὸν ὅτι τὰ μέλλοντα προγιγνώσκειν οὐ τῆς ἡμετέρας φύσεώς ἐστιν, Isocrates, Against the Sophists 13.2

If we don’t, none of the scenarios look great. In many cases, 12th century CE Byzantine manuscripts and papyri (still buried) have a far better chance of surviving than the rapidly degrading and poorly printed books of the past 50 years. If we are to imagine that someone else might make these plans, we must consider who will do it instead. Should we leave it up to silicon valley disrupters? What works would they choose to preserve? Should individual universities be responsible? Will governments and libraries do the work? Should we hope that religious organizations will do this again? What choices would modern Christian sects make?

(Sidebar: when I was in elementary school we viewed the full series of Tomes & Talismans during library time each week. The central characters were librarians with a bookmobile; the threat were an alien species in a post-apocalyptic earth who were trying to wipe out accumulated human knowledge. They were called “The Wipers”.)

I think that it is probably best for professional organizations across linguistic and geographical territory to start to have this conversation. Most of our current output is currently stored in digital form across myriad platforms, with little concern for data degradation or recuperability. Not only are our blogs, tweets, open access articles, and personal correspondence at risk, but the very texts we have worked so hard to preserve, establish, and edit, are mostly in cheap, glue-bound paper versions. And this does not even begin to touch the challenges presented by material culture in a changing climate. Should we continue to excavate when climate change and geo-political stability threaten anything not under the earth? How does the possibility of future collapse change museum studies?

We need to talk about what will be preserved, how we will preserve it, who makes these decisions, and what aid we can store up for the historians of the future. We need to talk about the overlapping responsibility of universities, professional organizations, and governments to work together to preserve what we have won. And we need to make sure that voices from different backgrounds and experiences are central to this conversation

“Prudently the god covers the outcome of the future in dark night”

prudens futuri temporis exitum
caliginosa nocte premit deus, Horace Ars Poetica 25

Years ago, I used to teach a course called “Classical Myth and Literature”, which I think was originally designed as a bridge between straight up myth courses and more focused literature in translation offerings. I used it as a means to trouble the definitions of both myth and literature. One of the final essay questions asked students to imagine a flight from planet earth under the threat of alien invasion and to explain the choice of preserving either the corpus of 1990s pop songs or early Greek poetry (usually, specifically the Homeric Hymns). It was a fascinating assignment because students had to justify their answers using examples from the corpora. And, let me tell you, the pop songs were preserved nearly as frequently as the Hymns.

We are at a unique albeit horrifying moment in history. Perhaps the younger among us or the less thoroughly institutionalized will find ways to fight or forestall coming events. Those of us who are committed for better or worse to the study of the past even as the present crumbles around us need to start having hard conversations now before it is too late.

“For, it is right, Athenians, to use prior events as a guide about what will happen in the future.”

χρὴ γάρ, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, τεκμηρίοις χρῆσθαι τοῖς πρότερον γενομένοις περὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἔσεσθαι, Andocides, On the Peace with Sparta 2


Tomes and Talismans (1986)
Tomes & Talismans Still Shots from IMDB

One thought on “Revising The Future of the Past

  1. I never thought that you got nearly enough credit for this important piece last year. Hopefully this will get the attention it deserves now that the crisis is here!

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