Noah's Ark and the Internet

September 2000

You probably haven't thought much about Noah's Ark lately. And you're probably wondering what this has to do with the Internet. Don't worry, your columnist plans to tell you.

The story of Noah's Ark must be familiar--lots of rain, lots of flooding, and a man with a plan: build a boat, fast, and bring those creatures two by two. It turns out, geological records suggest that there's some truth to the flood story. About 8,000 years ago the glaciers melted, and the oceans rose around 500 feet. Plus, certain geological events created giant tsunamis and other cataclysms that inundated some coastal areas.

These events were devastating, given that people back then tended to live in coastal areas. But many lived to tell about it, and they have been doing so for thousands of years. Even today, you can visit a traditional culture in some corner of the earth, and their version of the flood story will resemble the type of event that occurred in the distant past. (Of course, people move around and take their stories with them, but genetic, linguistic, and archeological evidence can be used to trace the stories to their original locale. And the correlation is there.)

Think of it: still today people recalling something that happened 8,000 years ago--there are some 500 known flood stories. This is memory. We are a species with an extraordinary cultural memory. It has helped us thrive.

And now that cultural memory is being lost. How can I say this delicately? I can't. So I'll say it indelicately: many of us are bozos when it comes to the past. I left high school knowing about zero. History meant nothing to me. It was something in a book, a list of facts that you memorized and remembered long enough to take a test. History? Hey, I just wanted to watch television.

In an oral culture--that is, a culture without any external technology for storing information--you have to remember things. You must conserve the tribal encyclopedia, cherish it, maintain it, pass it on for future generations. You must live and constantly repeat the stories and myths and parables and songs and rituals that make you a people. And you can remember for 8,000 years.

But with technology, that cultural encyclopedia is written down or digitized, in a sense freeing the mind of the burden of memory. Something is lost, something is gained. The flood is forgotten (though you can always find a version of it in a book someplace). And something is gained: a sort of freedom from memory, a freedom to forget. Now, at this millennial juncture, everything is new, everything culturally is in flux. No one cares much about the past. It's always the new movie, the next episode, the latest trend.

With the arrival of the computer and the Internet, there is even less need to remember. Just about any fact is available at any moment. We don't even need to remember how to spell, knowing that the spell checker will help us. The world is changing so fast that remembering almost becomes a disadvantage. For better or worse, any traditional culture that tries to hold on to the past seems to be left in the dust. Change, adaptation, innovation, this is the stuff of survival today.

I like the Internet. And I don't like the Internet. I like going online and seeing the whole world of possibilities. But I don't like forgetting the past. Mostly, though, I'm fascinated. We are where we are in this 21st Century, and I feel that simply trying to understand the big picture can not only be satisfying, but also useful and reassuring. Still, though, there will always be the question: Where the heck are we going? And there's one thing we know for sure: We're going there awfully fast.

I recently read an extraordinary book: Nonzero : The Logic of Human Destiny. More than any book I've read, he gives the big picture of where we've been and why things are changing the way they are. I recommend it. And if you want to read more about the several floods in the past 15,000 years and their impact, try Eden in the East : The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia by Stephen Oppenheimer. It's long and technical, but you can skim it and get the gist.

© 2000 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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