In context of the overall story of humanity, what will be the result of our current modernity? I suspect our descendants will not know most about what we currently know about past civilizations. The reason is that we would have exhausted all of the archaeology to provide independent confirmation of the literature. Even if they can understand that literature (most of which is coded in very specialized sub-languages), they will have plenty of detractors who will point out reasons to doubt the findings or cast doubt on the motives or competencies of the authors. The exact descriptions of our past that we today consider to be well supported by evidence, will to our descendants be considered myth. They will have no means to distinguish which of our writings represent facts and which are fiction, and they’ll have very little of our writings to read.
We are currently entertained by the increasingly complete story of human history with better information about even the most distant civilizations, including some hints of an advanced civilization (advanced in different ways than our own) that may never be fully recognized. We have some confidence in this story due to the recent discoveries of artifacts previously untouched since the time of their existence. Although rigorously debated, we have some trust in the scientific rigor of our contemporaries.
The problem is that we are handling the artifacts, often displaying them in remote collections, and many of these go on tours to different locations. They are mixed with other evidence of other locations and times to present a story to visitors, and remixed later to tell a different story to keep the audience’s attention. Many of the artifacts get distributed to private collectors who later will need to relinquish them for financial reasons or as a result of the owner’s death. Meanwhile, we are creating facsimiles and deliberate forgeries to satisfy the market for private ownership.
Eventually (perhaps centuries in the future), the artifacts will lose their relevance in terms of supporting a narrative about our past, or it will be difficult if not impossible to distinguish the real artifacts from the copies that themselves would have aged.
In the distant future, the only evidence of the past will be in the writings that survive to their time. First problem is how much of the literature documenting this knowledge will actually survive centuries in the future. I suspect a tiny fraction of the information we have today will survive for our ancestors to access. Even if we manage to maintain technology that can access the data we do have, we are rapidly losing data due to the fact that electronic storage is not as durable as physical media. Even when we strive to archive data for long time, we end up finding that even a few decades old media is no longer readable due to media decay or obsolete technology no longer is available, especially for large scale data retrieval.
A couple of centuries from now, most of of what we know today would be lost forever. That is an optimistic assessment because it assumes that the future will have technology that is backwards compatible with today’s technology. It is comforting to assume that our descendants will have more advanced technology. I’m more pessimistic because what we have today relies on a global Internet that in aggregate requires global cooperation and requires a huge amount of energy to power the network, computers, and storage.
I think it is likely that our descendants will not enjoy the luxuries we have today. The current global economy may not last long. Also, they may not be able to afford the large scale and broad range of industries required to maintain an Internet. Even if there are small enclaves of elite scholars (similar to medieval monasteries), they would not have the means to access and maintain the data that has not been converted to physical media such as paper. Most of what we have today will be irretrievably lost to our descendants. In particular, they will not have access to any form of video or photography, the best evidence most of us have today if we don’t have the luxury of visiting sites or exhibits ourselves. The historic photographic and video recording of original research provides us reassurance of the authenticity of the findings.
The value of photographic and video evidence declines over time. This is illustrated with the recent denial of the reality of the Apollo lunar missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite the video and photographic evidence, there is an increasing popularity of denying that men ever left Earth orbit in the first place. Part of the reason for increasing doubt is the challenging of the authenticity of the photographs and videos themselves: the images could have been staged. It is increasingly impossible to counter this claim because most of the collaborating evidence of recorded data has been lost because we could not afford to preserve such otherwise historically trivial data such as the minute-by-minute telemetry data from the missions.
In half a century, we are losing confidence in the fact that we’ve been to the moon. We are getting close to the point where the only clear proof of our historic lunar landing would require a new mission to the moon with the express mission to visit the sites and possibly retrieve the parts we left behind. Even that would only satisfy us for another half century or so. The only way to preserve our confidence would be to establish a permanent human settlement on some planetary body. Unless we invent some interplanetary economy, we will never be able to afford that.
I do expect there will soon be a major financial correction for the global economy. It may or may not have regional winners in addition to losers, but the global nature itself will retract substantially. Globally, our future will have much less wealth to spend on maintaining and accessing data.
It is almost inevitable our future will see a data Apocalypse. We’re going to suffer a major amnesia. The analogy is a stroke victim suffering amnesia due to brain damage and the survival of a fraction of the brain previously available. We’re going to lose a large part of our Internet brain, large parts of it will disappear, and the rest may be starved of necessary power or technology replacements.
A more pessimistic (though I think very likely) future is that there will be collapse of civilization as a whole and on a global scale since so much of modern society and its economy relies on the networks and computers that will no longer be able to work at the scale it operates today. This collapse could be comparable to collapse of the Bronze age at around 1200 BC or whatever happened around the time of Goblekli Tepe: a collapse so complete that survivors lost literacy or any memory of the past civilization. Certainly, there would be no way to maintain computer technology. More critically, eventually the descendants will lose the ability to read and interpret the data that would have been on those computers.
I tend to accept a catastrophist view of history. There were prior periods of civilization that have completely collapsed and left no memory of their lives beyond some artifacts. Prior to human times, there were periods at a global scale where conditions changed between more favorable and less favorable for stable ecosystems. The changes are what drives the innovations we see between periods.
The coming human catastrophe may be artificial in the form of a collapse of the economy, likely due to the fact that major upheaval may be the only way to resolve the global aggregate debt problem where the debtors can’t afford to pay the interest.
At the very least, we will lose most of our data. If any data survives, it will be increasingly suspect because of the lack of collaborating (but otherwise trivial) data. Very likely, the population will lose its ability to interpret the data either because they will not have access to the necessary technology, or they will eventually lose the literacy to interpret it.
I expect there will be a future dark age that will stretch for many generations and many of those generations will be illiterate and ignorant of the past except for some oral storytelling. They will have a landscape littered with the remains of the modern era. This litter will include more ancient structures such as the pyramids in Egypt or of the Roman constructions, but these will by then be contaminated by modernity’s conversion of these sites for entertainment of tourists.
I also expect that humans will survive through this. I don’t expect a complete extinction of the species, although I don’t dismiss that possibility. If we do survive, we’ll eventually have a new period of literacy with new languages and new forms of writing. Eventually, there will be a new scholarship that will begin to uncover the human past. Almost certainly, they will never be able to recover our digital records since the recording media will inevitably be decayed beyond any possibility of retrieval.
That future civilization may build perhaps as good of a reconstruction of our times as we have of classical Roman times. I doubt they will be able to reliably reconstruct what preceded the modern times. Even something as recent to us as the US Civil War, may be impossible for them to distinguish fact from fiction. To our eventual descendants, anything older than the 20th century will be a period of myths, with no access to any forms of evidence that has not been contaminated by the 20th century.
To our eventual descendants, our age would truly be the end of history.
I think this can be a good thing. Assuming that a future civilization can eventually recreate technology comparable to what we have today, they will do so with near complete amnesia of all human history prior to the 20th century. Meanwhile, their civilization will emerge globally where the local evidence of the 20th century will be very consistent. The new civilization may quickly become a globally united one that shares common aspirations. Just like our civilization respects our predecessor civilizations with some attempt to continue what they started, our descendants may honor the larger themes they can discern from our civilization. One of those themes will be space travel. If they manage to get to the Moon or Mars, they may find what we left there and be further inspired to continue what we started.
Humans may yet colonize outside of Earth, a few millennia from now.
In any case, I’m 100% confident that they will never read this blog.