Friday, June 26, 2009

Peering into the Future

At the Herricks High School graduation in 2007, I felt almost as though John Bierwirth, the superintendent of schools for the Herricks School District, was speaking directly to me when he began his remarks with the comment that that year's graduates, like his own grandparents, began life in one century only to reach the fullest flower of adulthood, with all that entails, in a different one. The same was true of my own grandparents too, of course, as it was for the grandparents of most of those of you about my age reading this. But the superintendent's comments spoke to me more deeply than a mere observation about the way people's life spans and the way we count the years in terms of decades and centuries are often out of sync.

On the one hand, the insight behind his comment is almost obvious: a lifetime is a lifetime regardless of the specific number attached to the year in which one is born or in which one dies! But, on the other, it's an exceptional thought. My grandparents, all four of them, were born in the 1880s. Two died in the 1940s. Another lived into the 1950s. My mother's mother, for whom Lucy is named, made it into the 1960s, dying just a few months before my bar-mitzvah. (That's another story I'll tell you all some other time.) And so, as we sat there in the rain, Dr. Bierwirth's thoughts started me thinking about my grandmother's lifespan. She was born in a world of horse-drawn carriages and gas-lit streets...and lived into an age so technologically different from the world of her childhood that it must have seen astounding to her....and, of course, she died before computers and color televisions were commonplace items in most people's homes, and when most people only had one telephone number. (Between home, work, fax and cell, my little family has ten different numbers. And I'm sure some of you have more.)

None of this is all that astounding to consider, but what got to me was wondering whether, someday, when the grandchildren of last night's graduates talk of them in the way Dr. Bierwirth chose to speak of his own grandparents, they will say just the same thing, that the world their grandparents were born into was so incredibly different from the world they themselves inhabit so as for the very thought to be mind-boggling? The simple way to imagine that being true is merely to imagine the future as an intensification of the present, thus a world of even more powerful computers, even more reliable space vehicles, even more destructive bombs, even more instant communications, etc.

But that's not necessarily the right model—our world is not different from the world of our parents and grandparents because we have even more swift dirigibles, even more accurate telegraphs, even more well insulated iceboxes, or even safer gas lamps illuminating our streets! My grandmother was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, but the ways our world is different from Pottsville in the 1880s have almost nothing to do with us merely having bigger and better versions of what they had. Instead, our world is different from theirs in ways that they would have been incapable even of dreaming about, let alone successfully envisaging...and intensification would have been precisely the wrong model for them to use to imagine the future And that thought—that the same is true of us as we attempt to imagine the world in which the grandchildren of last night's graduates will live—is what I found so compelling in Dr. Bierwirth's offhand remark.

Who knows what the future will bring? I'm still amazed that I can send a text message to my son in Los Angeles and have an answer back within a minute or two. I suppose the world is even greater than that...and will continue to develop along lines we have yet even to dream of. In a weird way, I hope that's what happens...that the future is not just more of the present, but something undreamt of, something golden, something fully expressive of human creativity at its grandest. The parents of my grandma's grandparents would have been born, not in colonial Pottsville, but nevertheless during the American Revolution. Would they have imagined their great-grandchildren's day along the lines that I'm proposing we use to look that far from here into the future? I suppose they might the real question is whether the realization that the future will be different from the present in ways none of us can even begin to imagine is exhilarating or depressing, energizing or paralyzing. I myself vote for the former! (But then again, what do I know? Maybe I'll text Max in L.A. and ask him what he thinks. I should have an answer in about 12 seconds....) [June 22, 2007]

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