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Friday, November 23, 2018

A Legacy of Binary Dust

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How infinitesimal will the legacy be of someone born in the 20th century. I often wonder about the effects of our lives and those who have come before us on this planet. Stonehenge. Easter Island. The Pyramids. The Nazca Desert drawings. Croatoan. These are all mysteries of history where we’re not sure what was the exact purpose of their design. In fact, what exactly was being discussed when those responsible stepped back and looked at their creations, now finished. Was it for the benefit of them to leave their mark or for us? Were they trying to simply say, “Killroy was here,” in some ancient fashion, or were they trying to tell future civilizations something important.

But what’s past is prologues and we are the new builders of a legacy that may never be realized. We’ve built structures on the beach, a testament to our ingenuity of molding sand. We leave monuments of our gritty labors for others to partake, some to take out with their feet. Hopefully, they take delight in our design for a brief moment in time. But, ultimately, the beach, like a giant Etch-a-sketch, shakes itself each day, wiping away our efforts. Once towering castles in the sand, a new resets the board and allows the next master builders a chance to impress the passersby. But what if no one glances our works in the sand? What if not one person wanders by before the tides reclaim the sand? Did it ever exist? Did it ever matter?

So what if we carved our initials into that tree or upon the steel beams of a rusted old bridge that spans a river. So what if we tag a water tower or train car? Someday that mighty maple may fall, a casualty of mother nature. Or that bridge may crumble due to the elements, only to be rebuilt anew, sans scratched in symbols of our defacement. The graffiti on an overpass may be painted over. And who really gets the chance to read all the tags on the boxcars as they roll by at the railroad crossing? Then what? Our monograms go unnoticed, forgotten in time. We lose a foothold on the past with our legacy erased.

Of course these acts are all destructive. They hurt nature. We should build things not deface them. But even then, over time, those structures could be wiped from memory with a wrecking ball or an evil plot. Our history books and the Internet preserve those images, indelible in our minds and hearts for generations to come, but still the memories get corroded and the history gets morphed into something different, a narrative told by one side to blame the other. Of course, this only matters to the legacies built by those with presence. Those items are on display for a reason and the knowledge of their dedication is made public. For us, the lowly, anonymous citizen, our legacy gets wiped quite often.

I hope, that one day, many, many years from now, a child puts on their father’s shirt. It’s faded design marks a time in the early 21st century, where a young man, no longer alive, decided to put funny images on a shirt, and perhaps a younger man bought that shirt, wearing it with pride And it held up, over the years, until he had a family all his own, and while the shirt no longer fits him, his young son can run around in the faded and cracked ink marked shirt, still giving the father a smile, remembering when he bought it so many years ago.

And one day, when a new generation comes up with a better idea for sharing content among viewers, and the servers of YouTube are wiped and scrapped, the last remnants of these videos will be lost to time. Even the raw footage and files from their recordings will no longer be able to be viewed as we move onto different, more efficient means of compression and storage of digital media. Today’s MP4s are yesterday’s 5 ¼ inch floppy disks. Centuries from now, an archaeologist may come across a box of these thin black squares and wonder what the faded words “Lemonade Stand” or “DOOM.EXE” means. What will be the legacy of Chocolate Rain or Keyboard Cat be when no one is able to view the videos in the 22nd century?

As for gamers, we spend time and money on a digital footprint. On multiplayer servers, long since decommissioned, we built massive bases and farms in Minecraft, creating pixel art Mario or Pinkachu out of wool, so that a n00b on the server could pass by and see our art or architecture, marveling at the design and detail. Even I gave money to a server which no longer exists. I built many structures costing me countless hours only to have them wiped away after the mods went away and stopped hosting. The videos of these structures, while still on my channel, harken to a time when I was still early into the channel, not really knowing how to best present and edit content. In GTA, we built empires and acquired clothes and vehicles, but those were all temporary fixtures as newer titles were released and support for the old was removed. The money gamers spent on shark cards to amass all this material wealth, gone in a command line execution of finality. Angry Phisting will be no more as will Bob in the world of San Andreas. These are the legacies I’ve perhaps wasted my time on. Many hours, many dollars in maintaining storage and Players Plus accounts only to have everything blinked away. What purpose did it serve? What did I hope to achieve in them? Why do we continue to leave footprints where we know someone will later erase them?

It’s a perfect rabbit hole to climb down as you play a game like No Man’s Sky where in essence, the game wants you to be found. Perhaps not physically, or even maybe literally, but your mark on the game is left to be witnessed. Of course, as the game continues to morph and update and become something further away than what it initially started out as, our digital footprint on the universe is being wiped clean from the servers and one day, maybe a year or maybe decades from now, no one will ever see how you named your first discovery, Planet McPlanet Face. As the NEXT update gives us the option of building bases anywhere and in any quantity I am laughing as I come across the many footprints, little messages from other explorers, screaming out into the void. Their messages like little, “Killroy was here” moments as I pass through on my way to completing missions. And as new players wander by, they may see my half constructed, abandoned bases, a simple checkpoint for me to find my way back, along the landscape of some world I’ve marked up in an effort to cash in on the resources of a world until I find that perfect location in which to build my ultimate base, only to have it wiped away from existence by the next update… or perhaps one day gone forever when Hello Games turns down the servers.

What do we hope to accomplish by making marks in the dirt or on the sides of buildings which can be erased with ease? How do want to be remembered when our digital feats and discoveries can be wiped away with impunity. Why do we care? As we move further and further online we lose more and more of our past because we become more closed off to the outside, opting to bottleneck our interaction into a screen and a signal. There’s a real chance that if we were to digitize our entire history and all of our accomplishments we could lose them all if something happens. If the power goes out, we lose everything. If some kind of attack occurs that wipes our data, we could lose our entire past. No more “Killroy was here” and no more “Ask not what your country can do for you.”

I’ve worked in knowledge management. I know what it’s like to be in an organization where the greatest wealth of information is held close by a very few individuals. The tribal knowledge that could help solve today’s problems and prevent tomorrow’s is closely guarded because by giving up that ownership, the owners feel they become obsolete and no longer useful. We didn’t get to space by having a few mathematicians say, “It’s easier if I just do it for you.” But it’s even more than that. We, as a society, are unprepared for what happens when those who take care of us don’t pass on their knowledge of everyday things. Farming or basic maintenance or even how to function as an adult and manage finances.

Education is the most powerful legacy we can pass on to our next generations. And it’s taught word of mouth and written. Yes, technology can help mobilize and shape the message. It can even help deliver it, but it cannot be the system of record when it comes to our past. That we must write down and teach to the youth. We must cut through all the Fake News and partisanship and pass along those details and facts that will keep up from losing ourselves completely. That is the carving on the tree we need. That is the graffiti on the water tower we should embrace.

We need to have more than a legacy of binary dust to have blown away by the winds of ignorance and shortsightedness. We need to learn from our past or we will forever make the same mistakes.

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