Archaeology is the study of past civilizations, based on artifacts left behind. A great deal can be learned from past civilizations, but if there are future civilizations, what will they be able to say about us?
When we sent Voyager out into the universe to introduce ourselves to the the unknown, our “calling card” consisted of technology that was out of date before the spacecraft was out of our solar system, a phonograph with instructions on how to listen to the recording. Were Voyager to one day return to Earth, would the current civilization be able to decipher the message? Would your child know what a phonograph is? Considering a recent video of children trying to figure out what to do with floppy discs, I wouldn’t expect too much. We can’t even replicate the Space Shuttle, our best minds conceding it is “too complex.”
What of our civilization will remain in a thousand years? Even plastic, which is our most common artifact, degrades in a thousand years. Unless we break away from our egocentric concept that there will be no breaks in the continuity of society, there will be no books or films, which would require archival preservation, and should an all out collapse take place, everything stored electronically will vanish. We have systematically erased our history, converting our fragile “hard copies” to ethereal digital versions, changing our digital media from the semi permanent optical recordings of DVDs to strings of electrons on flash drives, hard drives, and now “the cloud,” which is as stable (and secure) as it sounds. We are barely one electromagnetic pulse away from the dark ages.
The steel of our buildings will decompose in a few decades, but the glass will last for thousands of years. Will some future archeologist piece together the mass of shards were once a skyscraper? With porcelain being almost indestructible, will they puzzle over all the bathroom fixtures? Perhaps it is fitting that the toilet will be the most common artifact remaining in two thousand years.
Our modern pyramids, buildings of concrete, are becoming scarce in the landscapes of steel and glass. Our homes are increasingly built of wood. The remnants of twentieth and nineteenth century buildings may provide evidence of a once great civilization that disappeared.
When we look at recent civilizations, I am reminded of extinct Native American tribes, whose demise can be traced to their deforestation of the local environment. When it took longer than a day’s walk to collect firewood, the Pueblo died. Will a future anthropologist be able to figure out we consumed the resources that provide electricity, and having stored all our knowledge on electronic devices, were left with no past, and thus no future?
We, and by “we” I mean twenty-first century humans, will be forgotten. All of our mistakes will be remade. Perhaps the future Einsteins will not build nuclear weapons, but my greatest hope is that survivors of this civilization will turn away from technology and embrace the simple life they will be forced into, living in small social groups and building upon the lesson that bigger is not always better. Perhaps our progeny will be a nobler species, Homo Sapiens Supra.
As with anything, the journey to that day will be difficult for those who resist change. Considering ourselves as merely modern Cro-Magnon, another step in the evolutionary chain, is more soothing (to me) than thinking we are the very best we can possibly be. Because we are not. We are not capable of destroying our world, but we are very good at killing each other. It appears to be our goal.