Monday, February 7, 2011

Who's Laughing Next?

""We have heard nothing from our ambassador in Spain for two years," President Thomas Jefferson once told his secretary of state. "If we do not hear from him this year, let us write him a letter."

This was the example used in my International Relations reading to illustrate the changing technologies of communication.

It's easy to look back on history and laugh; we laugh at the period of time the president is willing to wait, we laugh at funny looking wigs (powdered, of all things!), we laugh at silly ways of speaking ye Old English, at those who thought the world was flat and that the sun revolved around it, at those who believed in spirits and cured diseases through bleeding, at muskets that took far too long to load and rarely ever killed anyone in battle, at misspellings on Liberty Bells and bronze Lady Liberties turned green, at telegram messages and punch-card computing machines, at VHS tapes and dial-up internet, at a generation that may have looked down on smoking but never looked up its deadly side-effects, at black and white television and over-dramatic vacuum cleaner commercials, at gigantic cell phones and door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. At all these things, we can look back and laugh.

But, if we accept that we have not reached the end, and that our present is merely the next man's past, we can deduce that we are the next ones to be laughed at. Perhaps not directly next; we have yet to laugh at the men walking on the moon, for we have done little more on it; we have yet to laugh at telephones, for we have not yet made them obsolete. There are still generations to laugh at before ours. Yet, soon, our time will come.

What will the people of the future laugh at? Let's extrapolate, based on things we consider antiquated today.

Wigs = Ties
By the early 1800s, people stopped wearing wigs in the United States. James Monroe, President until 1825, was the last US President to do so. Roughly 200 years later, we look back and laugh at funny pictures of men in powdered headdresses and chuckle. What fashion accessory, then, will be outmoded 200 years from today? My suspicion: the tie. That's right, the men and women of 2200 will wonder what value we could have possible seen in strangling ourselves with colored fabric. They'll wonder how we managed to keep it from getting in our food, and why we cared what length it was. They'll browse museum displays of ties of different thicknesses, designs, even ones with zippers for boys who could not tie them. And yes, the people of the 23rd century will laugh.

Old English = Proper Spelling
With the advent of automatic spell-check, text-saving measures (required by text messaging and Twitter character limits), and the mere passage of time, there is no doubt that the future of the English language would make modern English teachers cringe. We look back on Shakespearean uses of "hath" or biblical translations with "thou" as silly; just wait until "later" (l8r) and "would" (wld) become replaced as quickly. These words were on their way out in the early 1700s, which puts us in the 2300s when our dictionary will either be laughed at, or our contemporary texters will be hailed as the parents of many new English words, rivaling the legacy of the Bard.

Google Ngram shows the declining use of certain words throughout the history of English literature.

The list, I think, goes on and on. We find telegrams primitive, but won't generations of video-chatting Americans find text messaging as antiquated? VHS might be out the window, but DVDs get scratched, misplaced, and left in the wrong case. Surely the future will have replaced them. And the nicotine we look down upon as an addictive and harmful drug may prove to be little different from the caffeine currently keeping half of the US population sleep-deprived and coffee-hungry (source: eHow). We shame slaveholders of the past, but how many modern Americans hire illegal immigrants under the table, below minimum wage? We bemoan Supreme Court rulings such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott v. Sandford, but which rulings of our time will be soon overturned and berated?

Will keeping pets be eventually deemed animal cruelty?  Will bottled water be laughed at as the biggest unnecessary waste of plastic in the history of mankind? Will capital punishment be one day recognized as barbaric, flawed, ineffective, cruel, and unusual, as it has already been deemed by roughly two-thirds of the world's states? The answers to these questions are uncertain, and one can only hope (perhaps not for the pets one, though).

So what do we make of all this? That our decisions are inevitably erroneous, even before we make them? That our practices and traditions will so obviously be soon antiquated that we might as well give up on them altogether? No. If we stopped functioning for fear of making mistakes, we would have made the greatest mistake of all.

Instead, we must simply be aware. We must understand that we are not the height of civilization; there will be those after us who do things better. We are history, we are primitive. We must be humble and acknowledge that some of what we do and believe is wrong. We must be open to change, progress, and understanding. We must allow ourselves to critique ourselves. Neigh, we must demand it.

In this country, such a philosophy has always been valued. We are encouraged to criticize the government and even one another (First Amendment) and to be willing "to alter or to abolish" any system which we deem destructive (Declaration of Independence). Our founding fathers knew that nothing should be set in stone, no person or idea could be so right that he or it could not be argued against. That is why our Constitution has a process for amendment. We are always changing, as we should be.

Einstein is credited with saying, "Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods." Perhaps it is not the laughter of gods but of men that we can best understand. And each time we laugh at some archaic notion from our past, be reminded of those who will be laughing next, at us.


  1. with much of this, we can see that people made the best decisions that they could with the information that they had at the time. Never attribute evil when ignorance will suffice. It's tempting to overthink, second-guess ourselves, not knowing if it's the initial reaction or the knee-jerk that will prove wrong in the future. Hindsight, yada yada. And what are the Robert McNamara situations, in which particular parties have the information that might swing the debate? Thus, I guess, we are left with the scientific method, in which knowledge is not left to the gods, to the experts, or to the scriptures, but only that to the evidence itself. It makes for a very slow approach-avoidance progression of knowledge. But ultimately, in this post-modern world, truth is subjective and what stands as moral and right in this time might not stand as the arc of the universe continues its curve. I could go on, but I've already expired the Pilchik-family babbling allotment. Nice posts my dear B, Aunt D.

  2. Very enjoyable reply! So I would say, toward, "people made the best decisions that they could with the information that they had at the time," yes and no. On the one hand, yes. Let us not be constantly second-guessing ourselves to the point that our indecision leads to stagnation. However, it is so very important that we DO second-guess ourselves and criticize our society.

    We know, for example, how bad caffeine can be, or how wasteful plastic bottles are. For the most part, we ignore this knowledge. Much as smokers knew of some consequences long before they were well-investigated, we may not always make the BEST decisions with our information. It is important, therefore, to always be critical of our decisions.

    We do not, as the Panglossian would say, live in the "best of all possible worlds" - we can see that the "universe" (as you noticed) has changed from the past, and we can infer that it will continue to change in the future. That improvement, in a large way, is our responsibility.

  3. Oh dear, I completely agree. When it comes to personal behavior - especially health related - we're idiots. Or rather, since that's not exactly the way Carl Rogers would phrase it - we make decisions based on what seems like the best decision in that moment. Behavioral economics. What's valuable to me in this very moment (that cigarette, that third martini, sittin' on the couch) is likely not what will be valuable to me in the long run. Convenience, immediate satisfaction, a total lack of anything approaching discomfort - these loom large in our consciousness. It takes time, effort, forethought, and a great deal of cognitive capacity to consider the impact of our behavior and actions - especially when they don't seem real (e.g., bundled mortgages), landfills overflowing with disposable diapers that I'll never see. Our brains are designed (ahem) for efficiency and speed. The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one takes a true willingness to expend the effort. And that cuts into my sittin' around time. ;-)

    Thank you for making me think a little. - Aunt D.


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