January 6, 2023

What Would Future Generations Think About Us?


A few days into the fresh start that a new year seems to offer, I want to look both back and forward. Living in the present is the healthiest way to spend our time. Even so, there is value in thinking about the totality of our life; it seems especially appropriate as we flip the calendar, both literally and figuratively.

Let me use the idea of a time capsule for this post and see where it takes us. Imagine I am about to select things to put in a box to hold items or descriptions of ideas and concepts that someone decades into the future would dig up. 

Would they get a solid grasp of my life and what I thought was important? Or would they shake their head and wonder why I picked what I did? Why did my time in history identify these things worthy of highlighting and saving? How much had human history changed in those intervening years?

Ask me these questions fifteen years ago, and I am sure things like CDs or DVDs would have been included Social media was just being born, so a copy of the Facebook or Twitter logo would not have crossed my mind. What's a social influencer? Not on the radar yet. 

What is MAGA? What does "election denier" even mean? Oh, was that the Bush-Gore situation in 2000? That had no lasting effect on our behavior at the polls, so it must mean something different. TikTok? Is that some sort of clock reference? What in heaven's name is a "smartphone?"  

The point is that time, even short periods, rapidly changes our world, our language, our daily life, and our politics. What should go into a time capsule today that will make any sense to people 100 or 150 years from now? How do I capture even a small sense of what life was like in America in 2023?

In no particular order, here's what might be included:

* The previously mentioned smartphone. Few pieces of technology have changed our daily lives, culture, communication, and what gets us into trouble as much as the modern cellphone. It has disrupted lives, the political landscape, human communication, family dynamics, and certainly economics. It has been a tremendously positive tool in tying us all together while simultaneously tearing us apart and emphasizing our differences. 


* Print Newspapers and printed books.  It would surprise me if printed materials survived for another hundred years into the future. The cost and the use of natural resources to produce something that is easily available digitally means printed forms of communication will become something found in a museum. Future generations will wonder about our holding a 400-page novel in our hands.


* The Bible and The Koran. Religious beliefs have been responsible for much of our development of language, common rules of conduct, and how we think about the past and future. Unfortunately, they have also been the driving force behind many of our most violent conflicts. Those who identify themselves as secular, rather than holding any particular belief system, are rapidly increasing as a percentage of the population. In 100 years, when this time capsule is open, will these two texts still hold sway over tens of millions? 


* A few books (or digital files) and stories about climate change and its effect on the planet. What will the planet's climate look like this far into the future? Will people have adapted to the changes we predict coming, or will they have managed to rein in the causes enough to make the entire issue more of an academic subject? A few references from the past will help the future "us"  understand how we approached this critical problem.


* A can of motor oil and a  piece of coal. Will the use of fossil fuels be seen as an unfortunate period in history? Will people have found some other use for these products? Will they even recognize a lump of coal?


* A small, portable solar panel. I will assume that decades into the future solar power in all sorts of forms will be as commonplace as the corner gas station once was. How will our early attempts to harness the sun's power be seen?


*  A list of all the streaming, satellite, and cable TV channels reflecting what passed for mass entertainment during our time. There are two possibilities. All these entertainment options will amaze future people with how we chose to spend big chunks of our time. Or, what we think of endless options will have just been the beginning of a process where entertainment, education, and leisure activities are implanted into our bodies via a miniature chip of some kind.


 Face Mask and hand sanitizer. Here is hoping that these two remnants of the Covid period are historical relics and not part of everyday life a hundred years into our future. But, few events have had a more telling impact on the life and experiences of humans in the 2020s.



What have I missed? What belongs in your time capsule?

20 comments:

  1. As a retired nurse, I think of the human body that has not changed but certainly, what we do to the body in terms of medical technology has changed. So, when it comes to the human experience, some things won't change, i.e. think Maslow's hierarchy of needs. As humans, basic needs must be met and some are fortunate enough to evolve to meet higher level functions. I think self-actualization is a work in progress throughout life. I'm constantly reminded of all the old that is new again, recycled into some new format with semblances of the old. Are lithium sourced batteries better than fossil fuels or do we just exchange one thing for another with remaining underlying concerns of effects on the planet and its inhabitants? I don't know. I will predict that whatever items are placed in a time capsule, future generations will marvel at & question just as previous generations have.

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    1. What future generations think of us will be a mix of wonder, sympathy, horror, and thankfuless...probably as it has always been.

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  2. A dollar bill and some coins. No one will know what they are a hundred years from now.

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    1. You are right. Only collectors of nostalgia will have any idea what these strange symbols of value meant to earlier people.

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  3. A time capsule from today opened 100 years from now?
    A letter in cursive and An example of “learning to read” books. Reading, in and of itself, shall be a useless skill.
    Pictures of huge wind farms/solar farms on our most beautiful landscape. I think they will be an ecological disaster.
    Pictures of extended families. I am unsure of the place for “olders” without a religious system. I am not sure children will be procreated or raised within family units. With the rise of acceptance of abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, and AI….our current idea of family may be a weird thing from the past, Culling of genetic children (embryos) with any physical or mental genetic “defect” could become a norm. In turn there will be no genetic issues with the productive adult society.
    Journal of both my gardens and my travels. The 15 mile boundary may be the norm for most. Private ownership of land would be unproductive.
    Remember “1984” was written only 80 years ago.

    My Nana (1893-1976) left us a time capsule from 1931. Did your grandparents do one, Bob?
    ~ Janette

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    1. No, my grandparents did not. My dad's parents died before I was born, but my mom's parents were an important influence on my life.

      They taught me respect, making the most of my opportunities, and instilled a lifelong love of reading and learning. I loved them dearly

      I imagine your Nana's time capsule was fascinating. 90 years ago!

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    2. Interesting what you say about cursive writing. We had some out of country visitors staying with us a few months ago and I arranged for historical tour of the "old town" part of where we live. At one point we were asked if we could read a hand written letter by one of the early inhabitants. The 4 of us (all in our late 60s) read it with a little bit of hesitation here and there but mostly okay. The historical tour guide said we did well and that one of the challenges the historical society had was find people that could "translate" the old hand written letters of which they had quite a stockpile. Often they hire history majors from the local university to assist when they are off in the summer but they can't until they are taught how to read cursive. I suppose reading cursive is now like reading Latin or some other dead language. It's something that is no longer relevant to the vast majority of people and to anyone under 40 possibly something they've never encountered in their day to day life. As with Latin the world has moved on.

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    3. I just noticed that my comment above was as "Anonymous". It was me ;-)

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  4. I would include a photo of my wife and I with a glacier in the background that we got to see on a recent Alaskan cruise. Not sure there will be too many glaciers left in 100 years!

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    1. You may be right. When we were in Juneau 6 years ago the major glacier just outside of town was already completely clear of the lake.

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  5. It is shocking how much has changed over the years. Your post has ironic timing for me because we made a time capsule with our kids in the millennium year 2000 with the intention of opening it in 2020. Over the years the sealed cookie tin got moved to the back of a closet and I recently discovered it again. We plan to open it when all of our kids are together for a late family Christmas in a couple weeks. It should be interesting to see what treasures we put in it.

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    1. Well, that's fascinating. How much fun for the family. Do you remember what everyone put in it 22 years ago?

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    2. I have no idea. I can't even remember what I put in. It will be fun to see what was valuable to each of us and marked that point of time in our lives. Hopefully there is a rare old Pokemon card?!?!?

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  6. Personally, I take comfort in history especially in moments of change and uncertainty. As some have suggested, past is prelude. We have experienced significant changes in the past in terms of technology and culture. Think about the printing press or The Reformation. In each shift, there have always been struggles and disruption -- sometimes creative destruction. To me, I see our time now as no different. I am reminded that we always have educated people among us, and that is a great comfort to me. Some have argued that societies rely upon and are propelled by a small minority of highly visionary and intellectual individuals. As troubling as the world may appear at times, we somehow manage to find a way forward often through the guidance of that minority, and this path of reason provides a place for humans to struggle with the big questions -- what it means to be human. I don't foresee these questions going away just because we have new technology. Not everyone in the future will read Shakespeare, Plato, or The Bible, but some will (as is the case today), and those who find their way to the wisdom of the past may find themselves in that minority which continues to shape society. Sometimes education retreats as was the case in the Dark Ages with the monasteries tasked with preserving records, but then it finds a way back -- think of The Renaissance and The Enlightenment. I remain hopeful and confident that at least some people will continue to ask the important questions over the ages that bring meaning and reflection to our lives -- thought, as it has in the past, will triumph over transient fear or appetite: past is prelude.

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    1. I really like what you have said. We must remember history is both a series of repetitive cycles and a fresh disovery of all things possible. That should give us all hope.

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  7. Something I'd love to see go away is plastic... especially single-use plastic. We recently had a very high tide and, yesterday, my husband and I took a walk on the beach to see the big waves and aftermath of the storm. I was so saddened by all the tiny bits of plastic that had been washed up. Lots of tops of plastic bottle too. I hope we can start taking better care of our Earth.

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    1. Some cities, and now states, are beginning to ban single use plastic. I believe Walmart is bsginning to experiment with no more of those flimsy, throughaway bags in some locations.

      We could put one in a time capsule; hopefully people in the future will have no idea what it is.

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  8. While I am not wild about the death cleaning name (!), the concept is very loving and considerate for those who are there after we are gone. Betty is doing something similar with key photos and ancestral documents.

    The kids have made it clear they have no real interest or room for the bulk of the tens of thousands of photos that really only have meaning for us.

    Books? I am already donating or selling the bulk of my library if no one in the family wants one of them.

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  9. What a fun and thought-provoking post. You and your readers are so creative -- I enjoyed your list as well as additions from the comments. Some items represent hope, others are nostalgic, some are funny, and others are poignant. It's also interesting to consider what period of time is significant in terms of opening the time capsule. At one time, 100 years would have been a significant period. Now, things change so fast that 20 years brings a new world. I also appreciate that some see a time capsule as reflecting the times they live in, while others want to preserve more of a personal reflection of their own lives. Thanks for this idea. I'm having dinner with the kids and grandkids tonight -- I think I'll ask them what they would put in the time capsule -- should make for an interesting evening!

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    1. Oh my! Please followup with what your family comes up with at dinner.

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