How old is modern?

I will never forget the day Jordan and I were strolling through the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin and stopped in our tracks when we saw a face. It was painted on a Roman-era Egyptian casket head-board. It was as clear and detailed as any portrait. The colors hadn’t faded. I could have recognized that person walking down the street, a possibility which seemed eerily likely, except for the ancient hairstyle. A gap of two thousand years collapsed, with the ancient world suddenly seeming modern.

One reason for my seventh generation project is to expand my descendents’ notions of who is contemporary. The thinking is that the farther back they consider someone modern, the less remote the far future will seem. But I wonder what effect modern technology will have on future generations’ sense of the contemporary.

In my mind’s eye, people from the 1940s seem as real as people living today, but before that they start to fade to black-and-white, then sepia tones, then oil paintings. Oddly, Albert Einstein seems modern while the Wright brothers seem historical, even though the Kitty Hawk flight was in 1903, two years before Einstein proposed general relativity. Laurel and Hardy seem more modern to me than others of the 1920s, since I’ve seen them walking and (later) talking.

Which makes me wonder how the preponderance of color photos and videos, searchable on Flikr and YouTube and potentially archived permanently, will change people’s sense of the contemporary. If I could see a video of my great-great-great grandparents, they’d seem a lot more real to me.

With that in mind, I think I’ll take some videos of myself and my relatives at Camp Unistar this year. It will be at the same time that I’m writing this year’s letter to the descendants (I’ll be writing to my grandkids for the second year in a row.) It should be easy to archive a video for 30 years. More interesting will be archiving a video for the seventh generation. Unlike text or a photo, I can’t just post it on my blog and coerce the Internet Archive to grab it. Videos are big enough that archivists avoid them.

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