May 18, 2011

The Age of Man

When do you know when you're halfway there? This odd rhetorical-esque question popped into my head on the way to my day job this morning, and embedded itself like a splinter.

Do you ever know? Because, technically, you really wouldn't. Think about driving somewhere. Oh, you might be able to guess that you're about halfway to your destination, based on time or mileage, but you can't KNOW you're in the exact middle of something until you've gotten to the end, and, even then you're no longer in the middle. Right? It feels oddly existentialist, but that could just the lack of coffee in my bloodstream.

I remember hearing the stories about Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus in the anglicized format) being nearly at the point of a mutiny (nearly at the sword point, not to put too fine a point on it - - okay, I'll stop that now) because the crew simply didn't think they were past that point of no return and would rather risk a long trip home than continue on towards the unknown or the likely expectation of a trip over the edge of the world. And the historically accepted facts indicate that Chris - once they did actually arrive at land - didn't even realize the truth of what he'd accomplished, that he'd "discovered the americas."

Although, actual history reveals that he didn't actually discover it. And not just because people were already living there (an old Lakota Sioux friend of mine used to joke about wanting to celebrate Columbus day by discovering someone else's home and claiming it for his own), but because Vikings had been here - apparently several centuries earlier than the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. But I guess it's really okay, since Chris didn't realize he had found the new continent anyway. Plus, there's that whole thing about how Amerigo Vespucci did the cartography and got to name the place, so that's an entirely other complication. But I digress. The point I was going for is that all too often we really don't know exactly where we are. Not while we're on the journey and, many times, even after we've arrived.

There have been a lot of significant moments that we can look back on as world-changing events. some of them leave monuments, like the Pyramids; others have monuments erected in their honor. Some are chronicled in stories, songs, paintings or statues - and some simply have the memories of their enduring impact, engraved into our hearts. July 4th, 1776. May 10th, 1869. December 7th, 1941. November 22nd, 1963. July 21st, 1969.

I started thinking about all those historical moments - the good and the bad - and realized that many of those big events don't necessarily have a date stamped on them. And while many of them do, some of those dates aren't even entirely accurate - like in the case of July 4th not being the actual date on which the Declaration of Independence was signed. But we like to commemorate dates. Most Christians celebrate December 24th as the birthday of Jesus, even though it is widely understood that this date was simply chosen as a means to absorb Christians into the Roman practice of Saturnalia.

Additionally, fundamentally global-altering discoveries don't generally have that sort of a birthday, either. The telephone, the computer, the television, the internet. When did any of those begin? Can anyone pinpoint the moment at which they emerged, blinking, into the light? You might as well attempt to get people to agree on the moment life begins, or when the first man (or woman) walked on the earth. Perhaps it's more like an accomplishment than an invention that gets our attention? For example, the concept of flight has been around for centuries, but it was the Wright Brothers who achieved it in 1903. And although trains had been around for years, it was a spike being driven into the ground at Promontory Summit in 1869 that made history.

Computers seem to be the big event of this generation - the internet has brought the world together in new and amazing (read: sometimes frightening) ways. Processing speed is unbelievably fast - and transmission rates are already into the realm of well beyond the fantastic. You don't think we've come a long ways? Go back and watch "WarGames" or the original "Tron". You'll cry.

There's that whole "Technological Singularity" that seems to be causing a bit of concern - simply because things are rapidly moving along so exponentially fast that people can't even imagine what's going to happen after a certain point of development; that things will occur so quickly that the human capacity for thought will get left behind in the virtual snap of fingers. That transitional apex of understanding and development is assumed to be so evolutionary that it looks like a pinhole in comprehension, one that no one seems to be capable of peering through. Others seem to view this as the concept of approximating zero or approaching infinity. From any point approaching the horizon, it looks like a line across your vision, but isn't it just another perpetually migrating destination?

Kind of makes me feel like my own life. Have I already passed the halfway point? Am I already more than halfway between birth and death? Did I already miss my chance to have a midlife crisis? I never really wanted a toupee or a really fancy car, so maybe I'm just not wired that way. Or would I even know?

Feeling awfully rhetorical today. I don't have the answers, here. I'm in the same boat with all of you, looking out over the water and hoping for land. Although, to be perfectly honest, I'm happy enough with the sound of waves and the feel of the wind against my skin that I don't mind the open horizon. Are we there yet? Eh. We'll get there when we get there.

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