Dendrochronology and Minor Immortality

Dendrochronology is the fascinating science of dating past events by studying tree rings.   Everything that went on in the life of the tree can be studied in the concentric circles visible in cross-section. Oh what stories those tall sequoias and redwoods could tell.
When I think of Facebook (it could apply to Twitter as well but I don’t think of Twitter much) I see each year of our presence on this social network as another annual ring.  Every status update recorded, every picture and video uploaded, every link to a song, to an article is stored on Facebook forever.
Our pictures will show us growing older, the thoughts we express at 20 or 30 years of age will be there for us to review when we are 50 or 60, giving us a chance to wonder if we really looked like that or if we really said what we said.  Each year brings a new layer.   We capture each moment on a digital camera and even as we’re taking the picture we think about how it will appear to the people who will see it in their news feeds after we upload it.  So much of everything we do is now Facebook driven in some way.  We are out there creating and embellishing our virtual facsimiles, some of us more than others.
A few years ago I read Milan Kundera’s – Immortality.  The concepts that stayed with me after reading this book were the ones he explored at length, of minor and major immortality.  A few of us achieve major immortality – Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Lennon, Michael Jackson, Einstein, Elvis and so many others.  Whether Elvis has left the building or not, he is immortal in a major way.  These people are unshakable from our collective consciousness.  Some of them are in fact so immortal that they have earned the tag “Delebs”.  There is an agent in Hollywood, who was talked about on CBS’s Sunday evening show – 60 Minutes, who represents these “delebs” or dead celebrity.  Michael Jackson’s estate has earned more than a billion dollars since he died.  His extreme indebtedness in the years leading up to his death, forgotten.  Einstein is the top billed deleb of this agency, showing up in several commercials the world over.  James Dean, who would have been 77 now, had he lived, and Steve McQueen are the others who get top billing at these agencies.  These folks have certainly achieved major immortality.
Then there’s the concept of minor immortality.  The kind of immortality the rest of us desire.  We want to be remembered by our loved ones, at the very least.  We want to leave some sort of a legacy.  We want to find that one tiny raft that would somehow keep us from sinking into the sea of oblivion.    A couple of years ago I remember going through every family album I could lay my hands on.  I took on the role of family archivist.  I was thrilled to learn that there’s a family tree that documents my roots on my father’s side to the 12th century, going back about 26 generations.  I had names from back then but no pictures.
As the tree spread down the generations some early 20th century black and white photographs started making an appearance.  I studied each feature, each expression on these faces, wondering what they were really like, what thoughts were predominant in their consciousness, what were their aspirations, what brought them joy.   All these interesting names from earlier centuries, what did they look like?
They were all in eastern India, in the state of Bihar, did they care about the various invasions that the land, which wasn’t yet India as it is now, witnessed?  Did they see anyone that didn’t speak like them or look like them until the late 19th century when the British decided to exploit their lands for indigo farming?
In the black and white pictures I searched the faces of the women.  How was it like for them? They never appeared too happy with their existence (and not much has changed now).  The ones who got photographed were lucky.  There were so many women whose names future generations didn’t care to remember.  The people who have kept the male names, going back 26 generations, documented and duly recorded didn’t think women were important or relevant enough to remember.  Such were the times.  So many unremembered souls who were truly mortal in every sense.
In the late sixties, or seventies perhaps, some folks got interested in cryonics.  They asked that upon their death their bodies be frozen and kept intact for however many years it took for technology to catch up in ways that their thawing, revival and restoration to life became possible.   This was yet another stab at immortality by some.  Some such bodies are still in cold storage in various places in the world.
It’s important for us all, it seems, to greater and lesser degrees, to achieve some sort of immortality.  This is where Facebook comes in.  It captures our very essence, it captures our banalities, our trivialities,  our intelligence, our style of banter, our weaknesses, our strengths in steadily accumulating cyber layers.  Cryonics, for those who believed in it, is suddenly redundant.  Who needs a physical presence when our cyber-essence is expected to prevail in perpetuity? Forget minor immortality we are all as immortal now as we care to be.
I also read about a business idea (NYT Sunday magazine) that is now taking hold.  There are companies and companies with iPhone Apps who want you to think about what will happen if you suddenly don’t wake up one morning…they want to manage your digital afterlife.  They urge you to “will” your “digital estate” to your bewildered and aggrieved survivors because those of us who are active on the Internet will always have the unique distinction of rattling around in cyber space long after we’re gone; literally the ghosts in the machine.
The brave new world is already here, courtesy Facebook and Twitter, and we are all well on our way to being A, B, C or D listed “delebrities”.

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