Originally posted on Fri, 10/12/2012
I haven’t restored my old blog entries yet, but if you want to read about my Seventh Generation letter writing project, here’s a snapshot, courtesy of the Internet Archive, which includes a few related posts. I’m relying on the Internet Archive to keep online copies of the letters I write to my descendants, in case something should happen to the paper copies.
One fun thing I’ve done this year is take pictures of the Boggle game that my wife, Jordan, was playing with my mom while I was writing the letter. I haven’t posted them yet; I haven’t figured out how to scramble them. The idea is for my great grandkids to play Boggle against my relatives.
Here is my letter to my grandchildren which I wrote this summer. I’ve scrambled it to discourage you, dear reader, from reading it. So why am I linking to it? So the Internet Archive and other spiders will find it and archive it permanently. That way, once leppik.net is long gone, my descendants will simply need to know that it was there, and that the URL was http://www.leppik.net/david/7gen/1_OtherGrandchildren.html in 2012. (I hope I’ll be able to entice the spider to archive it by 2012.)
Michael Hart is not exactly a celebrity. But as founder of Project Gutenberg, he’s an inspiration. He had a simple idea, digitizing and disseminating public-domain books. Perhaps it was inevitable that paper books would end up digitized, just as hand-copied ancient manuscripts were made into printed books. But he was the first. Often times the march of progress seems inevitable, especially in retrospect; just as often the appearance is misleading. When it comes to books online, the world doesn’t begin and end with Google and Amazon. Typically their source is Project Gutenberg, and it can be your source too. Thanks to Michael Hart.
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.
The Internet Archive has announced a project to preserve physical copies of scanned books. There are two reasons for this. First, the original book is more authoritative than the scan. Second, books last longer than hard disks.
I find this interesting in the context of my Seventh Generation project. The letters I’m writing will be printed, but I’m planning to have electronic versions as well, hosted here at leppik.net. And I’m relying on the Internet Archive’s wayback machine to keep those available long since leppik.net has gone away.
Quiz: if you want to write a computer program to run 200 years from now, what programming language should you use?
I’ve got a guess, and while I won’t be around to find out, it’s an experiment I plan to perform. But first some background.
While I was at Camp Unistar this summer, I wrote a letter to my first grandchild to reach the age of 18. It’s an introduction to this project. Next summer I plan to write the next letter in the series, to the other grandchildren. (It’s on the computer, so each grandchild will get a copy.) After that I’ll write one every year to a subsequent generation.
When I’m done writing the letters, I’ll make printouts and stuff them in envelopes within envelopes within boxes, so that my grandchildren will each get a box of letters for his or her descendants. Then my great grandchildren will open their boxes (given by their parents) to find letters for their children, and so on. With each letter there will be some knickknack or photo from the 20th century (or early 21st); each one will be different, so there should be some excitement to see what is enclosed.
I targeted my first letter for the mid-21st century, assuming my children (4 and 6 years old) will start to have children in about 25 years (2035) who will open the letters on their 18th birthday (2053, give or take 10 years.) It’s hard to figure out how to address people 40 years from now; it’s as if I’d gotten a letter from 1950 on my 18th birthday. Fortunately we can still understand letters from the 1950s pretty easily. People still watch Laurel and Hardy from the 1920s and 30s. Once you go a few more generations, things start to get weird.
At what point will people still be using web browsers as we know them? Will this blog entry still be accessible in 2200? Will there be another world war? What words will have gone out of fashion? Will the language have become more formal, or less? Will we still need to brush our teeth? And most important, what advice can I give to an 18 year old which will still be relevant? (Studying advice for college, perhaps? Will they have college? Will my best advice be outdated by scientific discoveries?)
I think about things differently now. I wonder how long things will last in terms of generations. Since one of the goals of this project has been to alter my perspective, it’s a success so far.
I’ve been contemplating a project, which I may be too young to do, namely to write a letter to my descendants seven generations from now. This is inspired by the Iroquois notion of considering the impact of one’s actions on the next seven generations. In order to consider them, I must think about who they are, and what better way than to write a letter? Conversely, what greater gift could I have received on my 18th birthday than a letter from a Revolutionary War era ancestor?
There are a lot of things to consider if I’m seriously going to do this. How do I get the letters to their intended recipients? What if I don’t have descendants then? If I include photos, how do I make sure they won’t fade– or worse, damage the letters? And finally, what would I say?
Delivering the letters may be the easiest problem. First, redundancy works in my favor. If each child has two children, I’ll have 128 such recipients. If a few letters get lost along the way, I can still succeed. I can give letters to my grandchildren, enclosing letters for their descendants. With each passing generation, the tradition grows more meaningful, increasing the likelihood of delivery. I can also enclose photos or mementos, different ones for each letter, so parents will look forward to seeing what their children get.
I’ll be thinking about this project for a while longer. If anyone has any suggestions or pointers, let me know. And I encourage others to consider this sort of letter writing project.