Transience and the digital graveyard

Today I have a heavy backpack. A backpack full of memories of the past in form of papers. After deciding to move to a new flat, it turned out that I have a huge collection of hand-written notes from my undergrad and graduate times. Even more interesting were the notes I found made by 10 or 11 year old myslef, which I had saved in the basement all these years.

So what to do with them anyway? I would never ever need these notes again, if at all, every couple of years, I would take them out and get nostalgic about the efforts I had put on writing them, then put them back again into the basement.

I could scan them of course, this is currently the final decision, so, that’s why I am taking these piles of papers section by section in my backpack, so that I can scan them at the institute. There we have a heavy-duty scanner which takes care of larger piles of paper in a matter of seconds. There you go, the PDF comes out.

The PDF of your own handwriting already is a satisfaction, you can literally store thousands of them on your hard disk. The storage space is meanwhile not an issue anymore, so that there might not ever be a need to delete them to free up some space. Imaging last time I checked, I had about nearly 18000 photos, each of which are larger in size than a single PDF scan of my own handwritings. So if I really need to save space, I can go through those pics, and delete some of the multiple shots I took sometimes from the same scenes, and believe me there are many, I just took so many photos, so that I can sort them out “later”, so I saved them for “any case”. This is a digital graveyard for my stuff.

The words “later” and “for any case” often play a major role in our daily life decisions. You can always throw stuff away later, we think. Partly true of course, just yesterday I threw away a box which lay around for ages, just to figure out that I need it one hour later. But still, what are the chances of coming back to them?

So by scanning the files and put them on the hard disk we can actually give back to nature what we originally took away from it, I mean the paper, not mentioning here piles of electronic junk including this particular hard disk that might surface again later, somewhere long after I or anyone else would care for, in a mountain of electronic junk. The paper was a part of the nature, hopefully of course not directly processed trees, but it has at least gone through a recycling step. Nevertheless the paper is taken from nature, and nature can deal with it again properly. Only we human beings are the show stoppers of this flow, by keeping piles of paper in our basement, at least for a certain period of time, be it our lifetimes, and even beyond that in case future generations do care for keeping them to some extent. Seldom is it the case though that that could happen, handwritings of Isaac Newton may still be kept somewhere in a museum, who cares for my handwritings?

But let us increase the time scale again, let us talk about thousands of years. How long does nature actually care for keeping the memory of the information caused by human beings. Recently I was fascinated to learn that the “Göbekli Tepe” is one of oldest, if not the oldest temple ever on earth, with some radio carbon dates as old as 8800 years BCE, that is nearly 11000 years ago. These people erected huge stones and carved figures on them, leaving us hints about their lives, their religions and their beliefs. I am not sure if they really meant these things to stay there for over then thousand years, but here they are, nature preserved at least a part of them, namely the stones, taking away almost everything else, including the people themselves, and with that, their cultures and their beliefs. All gone back to mother nature.

From an astrophysical point of view, we know that some day in the far far future, our Sun will grow so much that it will devour our Earth. Latest at that point, nothing, even not the million year old stone carvings, even if they would survive the ages, would make it. Everything will be gone, all and everything.

We carry stuff all life long. Stuff that made us busy, stuff that we spent time on. Stuff that we used to identify others, stuff that we used to let others identify us with. We carry them from place to place, on our back, in boxes, in pickup trucks or in flash drives and hard disks. But most of the ideas we have and things we produce, have their most influential effects only for a short time, either during our lifetime, or possibly a bit longer. But most probably even shorter, years, months, days, hours, minutes or even instances. Our interaction with others and our surroundings is profoundly transient and governed by impermanence. Everything is in flow as Heraclitus pointed out in his famous quote: “Panta Rei”. But this flow does not only imply change, it also signifies this very transience.

The transient nature of our interactions is more prominent, the more material they are or in other words, the more interconnected they are with the material world, i.e. the more they involve matter. As mentioned above, sooner or later nature takes back what belongs to it, but ideas, if they are properly transmitted, say from mother to daughter over generations, can outlive those that use a physical medium like paper, flash drive or stone. But even ideas may have a short reach if they, in their essence, are deeply interwoven with material world. Take for example the knowledge involved in making analog pickup and amplifier circuits for tape cassettes the way they were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Now no company is interested in producing these bulky pieces of electromechanical artistry. The know-how of making such tapes, is the very intellectual concept that is thoroughly interwoven with the tape itself. As tapes are not used anymore, they and their related know-how will be lost in future generations, if it is not lost already.

Some of the ideas or concepts do last longer, like sagas, legends and beliefs. They stay around, because they have no or very few connections to concrete objects in the material world. Tales of dignity, honour and courage are timeless and can in in their very depth touch human soul of all ages and epochs. But here again, if you come up with a heroic act in a tale, that happens in a very specific technical environment, like e.g. a hero that saves lives of his companions through an IRC channel over the internet, you might wonder whether after a thousand years, people still know what an IRC channel or for that matter what the Internet is. So your heroic tale which by itself would be capable of touching hearts and create deep feelings over generations, is rather time dependent.

In essence, the more ideas or concepts are interrelated to the material world, the less they are likely to last long. Nothing that has in one or other way a connection to a physical dimension could ever last for good.

But are humans ever capable of producing everlasting things, material or non material? Probably not. The case of material things is clear, they are all subject to wearing off and deterioration over time. The case of non material things, i.e. concepts and ideas is also clear: being so deeply interconnected with the material world, human beings are rarely capable of detaching themselves from the very same world in order to produce long lasting ideas.

Only someone or something can produce truly long lasting effects that is outside of this material world, that is herself / himself / itself not part of this material world. In my mind, only a truly immaterial entity can satisfy this condition and its limit, only God could be the most independent entity producing the truly everlasting things. One of such things being probably the universe itself, coming and going, changing in a constant flow, in all ever and eternity.


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