Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Never" is a really long time

While I don't intend to make a habit of conversing on issues related to science or math--my buddy John Ptak does a marvelous job covering not only the sciences, but art, history, ephemera, and about everything else you could think of--I happened to have this thought pop into my head. Yes, the one there ^. Up there in the title line.

How many times have you heard someone proclaim something or the other, saying it was either never going to happen, or it would be forever before they allowed it again?

Me, too. Heck, me as the speaker more often than I would like to admit.

There are lots of problems with the concept of "never" not least of which is that we can't possibly prove that anything never happened (beyond the obvious: we have sound reason to believe the Earth never exploded, at least not in this reality).

As with any time-related absolute, our comparatively short span as witness is a problem, as well. Take anything related to our planet and its own history. Earth has been around for many millions of years...probably several billion. Mankind, even if you get generous and allow early predecessors to count, has been around for hundreds of thousands of years.

You see where I'm going: we cannot have witnessed more than some tiny fraction of our planet's history. Just as bad, we are lousy at taking notes and passing them to kids in the next class. It is quite common for important aspects of daily life to be completely lost in a matter of only a couple dozen generations. Say, 500 years.

When you think, today, about something as pervasive as the 8-track tape player was when I was a teenager, you are unearthing the unknown as far as my kids are concerned. That's a simple but relevant example. That kind of change--technology-related--is accelerating. In other words, items which are considered a vital part of the daily lives of people today will not be in mainstream use in 10 years.

There is a museum in San Jose (actually, Mountain View but close enough) which has collected many examples of early personal computing equipment. The Computer History Museum was only getting started the last time I was in that part of the country, a visit I remember fondly for my trip to Winchester House. But I digress.

Today, I'll bet you can see at the museum a relic much like the early Compaq portable computer I wrote software on for a couple of years. I toted that thing back and forth from home to work, and it may well be that my arms are slightly longer as a result. The darned thing weighed 33 lbs. That keyboard you see closes up over the the screen and diskette drives. You end up with a portable-sewing-machine-looking thing. It was no fun carrying it around, but it beat the heck out of spending stupidly long hours in the office. At least I could spend some of my stupidly long hours at home.

(aside: here is John Cleese advertising a slightly more-advanced model, then down to a featherweight 22 lbs)

It is obvious that we are only moving with greater speed away from who we were, making it even less likely that we can make proper use of that wisdom now. It is a problem with acceleration: you leave the past too fast to have gained all it had to offer.

Here it is in a nutshell: never is a long time, matched only by forever. It is foolish to pretend we have even the slightest notion of either, meaning we are equally foolish to make use of the concepts in our daily discourse.


Lynilu said...

I am forever trying to figure out what posts like this really mean. I never can!

OK, OK. I'll stop.

I've tried to keep "absolute words" out of my vocabulary, and I do better at times, but then I slip back into the old bad habits.
There are many things that I will "always" avoid, or "never" would be caught dead doing, or will remember "forever."

How well do you do, Rick?

Rick Hamrick said...

I don't do a very good job of it, Lynilu!

I wrote a poem a year or so ago which made reference to the "I will love you forever" cliche, and where the truth of it lies.

"Forever" is really "infinitely deeply" in this usage, as there is no way to say it which has the same power if you don't bring up the F word.

So, I wrote "I will love you forever, today." I guess I better go look that one up, as I can't recall exactly how it goes.

Thanks, Lyn!

Lynilu said...

I'd like to read it if you find it.


Lynilu said...

Yes, I like that. The message reminds me somewhat of one I wrote about understanding (or not) the many kinds of love:

Thanks Rick, for sharing the poem. :)