Friday, October 16, 2009

The Past is My Co-Pilot

McLuhan says that we travel blindly into the future looking at the past through the rear view mirror. There should be little tiny letters though that say "Objects in mirror are

The rear-view mirror of a Mazda 626. It shows ...

closer than they appear." Today I talked to a dear friend from the past. I am sure she doesn't really know how dear of a friend she was, but if you recall Junior High and your freshman year in high school - anyone who treated you decently, talked to you, regarded you as a human being, shared a smoke, and didn't hit you more than was necessary was pretty damned decent. She had/has a genuinely delightful smile. I don't really remember a lot of people from those years but the few people I do remember were or are remarkable (for good or ill). You have to remember that I was just a little bit denser back then. I didn't enjoy much about those years, and I have no real way of being objective about them. Anyway, someone I have known since the 3rd grade friended me on Facebook sometime ago. I have added a few of his friends and low and behold, there was that smile; that refuge in a sea of Junior High horror. And I was really stunned because I knew that 20 years ago, I would probably never see that person again in my entire life. I grew up as ungracefully as possible and got the hell out of Dodge. I left a geographic location with the thought of never returning and all of those years would fade away. I was wrong, of course, on so many levels. I thought I would walk out creating more memories of greater or lesser value and I would just keep moving. Westward, ho! in a metaphorical sense. That is how it has been for my family since at least the Potato Famine. But that is not how it is going to work out.

We have a different relationship to the past now. We talk about how fast the future is coming, but the past is catching up. As more and more social networks go up and intermingle, as more and more records go online, the internet is the new small town you never moved away from. The person who stayed behind and lived for the glory days of soccer at El Camino Junior High thinks about life differently than the person who has followed job after job promotion across the continent. I am not making a value judgment both have their plusses and minuses, advantages and disadvantages. Someone who has remained in one place for a long time is more settled, more connected to their family, friends, and community and because of that they are more invested in what happens locally; they might vote more, buy locally, invest in local business, attend local colleges - these are all good things and values that are just being discovered in places like Silicon Valley. Someone who leaves might have a broader perspective on life and have a greater awareness of national and world issues. They might be exposed to a wider variety of viewpoints and a diverse population. These are just generalities. George Bush was from somewhere else, and despite everything managed to hold on to his simple beliefs.

If those lines are erased, if the networks carry our past with us where ever we go, what kind of person does that create? If I remember madelines and mint tea with my aunt through the lens of all my experiences, it is a different record than a picture or an online document. Memories are shaped and reshaped over time. And technology can change that. A high resolution photograph of Amadinejhad waving his passport revealed that one of the most vitriolic anti-Semites actually came from a Jewish family - a single moment captured by technology changed the past as it was presented forever and hopefully will help change his future.

We talk, as educators, about how the connected world is changing the way we think because of our increased connections with one another and with information. I will be interested to see how networks change the way we think as we connect to our past. Are our world views based on events as we knew them or from events as they were? Are the connections to the past in the online world somehow "more valid" than the events that I think I experienced? Is the memory of the network any more accurate than mine? Who will judge that? I think we are all about to find out.

"Every man's memory is his own literature." - Aldus Huxley
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