In January, I saw in the news that Lucile Randon, then the oldest known person in the world (and the fourth oldest known person ever), had passed away. She was a few days short of her 119th birthday. Yes, that’s right: 119!
She was born in February, 1904 which made her the last person alive who had been born before my grandmother, Edythe (Rosen) Barnett. So, for me, besides a general interest in demographics and longevity (may you all live long and prosper!), Mlle. Randon’s passing marked a generational change: the era of my grandparents was finally over. Now, my parents have been gone for five and thirteen years, respectively, but there are some of their friends still around and, I expect, others of that generation will continue for another twenty years or so. And, of course, people of my generation have been dying for a long time. The first person of my cohort that I knew died when we were in high school. On current numbers, however, someone from my era is likely to make it to the 2070s; so we’ll be around for a while.
On the other end, I did meet one set of my great-grandparents, Moses and Pearl Rosen (Edythe’s parents), who were married for almost 70 years and died in their early 90s in the early 1960s. Not having any kids directly, I can’t “pass the torch” genetically, but my Great-Niece Emily Berg (who just had her first birthday) has, actuarily-speaking, a pretty good shot at living into the 22d century.
Together, then, I can directly connect within my family to 230 (+/-) years of history. It’s something to think about! 230 years takes us from Newton to Einstein, from Bach to Glass, from Leonardo to Manet, and from Washington to Trump.
Of course, at a personal level, my connection to Moses and Pearl on the one hand and Emily on the other doesn’t likely amount to a strand of great historical significance. Nobody in my family (even laterally) has risen to recognition in Wikipedia or whatever other measure of noteworthiness you might choose. Perhaps Emily will do something that merits widespread attention and I (and Moses and Pearl) will be appropriate footnotes in the first chapter of her biography; but, more likely, not. We’re more likely to be nothing more than links in the great genealogy tree compiled by the Mormons.
We’re ordinary in this way. The delight of a new birth, the celebration of birthdays, the marking of passing—all of which loom large in our day-to-day lives are, from this wider perspective, not much to get too excited about. They happen to everybody and this set of experiences (which I call my life) is not remarkable to anybody else. I think it’s helpful to see that this is true of everybody. We all face the same set (in our own versions) of life events/developments. Every family comes to a point where all grandparents are lost, then parents are lost, then we are lost, etc. etc. I (and at most three cousins) have the only conscious memories of Moses and Pearl; and, to be sure, they are already pretty faint. That’s all the living memory that is left of them. In due course, there won’t be any living connection to them and they will slip into the maw of the massive compendium of records of those who lived in the 19/20C; known only by a few scattered references in bureaucratic compilations.
They will take their place among those who were slightly visible in the past. And, visible at all only because of the trappings of modernity. Those born a century or millennium earlier are almost all entirely vanished among the 100 billion humans of the totality of life on earth.
There is a part of me that struggles against this tsunami of anonymity. What can I do, I think sometimes, to leave a mark on history? I think of those who gave some great sum to some institution to secure a building in their name or some other “permanent” memorial and I have to laugh (see Shelley’s Ozymandias.) I’m not likely to discover and name a comet that will cause my name to reappear every hundred years or so (Edmund Halley was, otherwise still quite an interesting character). I take some comfort (rationalization?) in my work as a teacher: a few published articles and some impact (of which they may be conscious or not) on the minds of students and their lives; but I don’t have any illusions of my prominence in the historical record. Even if I had kids, and progeny for multiple generations, then, as with Moses and Pearl, there would come a time150-180 years after my birth, when I, too, would fade from living memory and rely on my place in the census and other records.
As it is, I expect that will happen by the end of the century. While technology will preserve an increasing pool of traces of my existence, it’s not clear (even assuming that there is no digital degradation) that anyone will find them in the yottabyte (i.e., a quadrillion quadrillion bytes) ocean of data likely by then.
At this scale (of time and data), it’s not so clear how different humans are from ants or other creatures. But, we don’t live at such scales and only spend an inkling even contemplating them. As much as I am a big fan of long-term thinking, we can’t have any good idea what the world will be like five generations from now (any more than folks born in the early 19C had of how we live now). How could Moses and Pearl have any conception of the life that Emily will have? All we can do is nudge the ball forward as best we can and in whatever direction we can best guess makes the most sense.