Art and culture are the forces that shape humanity, and technology is merely a force multiplier. Each new communications revolution — the printing press, the telegram, the internet — is simply a more efficient method of delivering the stories and myths that power humanity across progressively larger distances and scales. Those who dismiss the art and culture of the past as little more than ancient relics from a primitive time are missing a much bigger picture.
BY Scott Bradlee FOR EPSILON THEORY
Here’s a pop quiz:
What’s the most reliable storage medium for preserving information over a very large timeframe?
Hint: it’s not a solid-state drive or a USB flash drive. It’s not “the Cloud,” either — whatever our imaginations might picture that to be. Clearly, it’s not a CD-ROM, a floppy disk, or any of the other also ran methods of digital storage … although “also-ran” would be heading in the right direction.
If our goal is simply to preserve information across a vast swath of time, our best bet would be to imitate our distant ancestors and carve it into stone.
I am, of course, aware that to our modern ears, this sounds not just wildly impractical, but also wildly incorrect. After all, the internet is forever.
… But is it, really?
“Forever” is a long time, and digital data storage has a track record of less than a century — a mere drop in the bucket, on a geological time scale. By comparison, the well-preserved Chauvet Cave cave drawings in France date back to 30,000 BC — and at least to my knowledge, the Chauvet Cave never accidentally lost millions of Myspace profiles.
Using physical stone as a storage medium for the kind of content we consume today would be wildly impractical, but it could be done. For instance, we could take a recording of our favorite song — a three-minute-long .MP3 file — and translate the unwieldy binary code into Base64, a less-unwieldy alphanumeric encoding scheme. If we happened to come upon a large enough slab of stone to hold the 3,500 or so pages of Base64 code that would be generated from this conversion, we could carefully etch this text onto its surface and preserve all of the information that is in the recording. As long as that text remained legible, our favorite song would then be able to be heard by any future civilizations that possessed the tools and technical know-how to translate an .MP3 file back into sound. It might not be as stylish as vinyl, but the idea of a stone “record” is pretty cool, nonetheless.
This carved stone could act as a bridge to the distant future, and in addition to sending the recording code itself across eons, we would also be transmitting a host of other interesting information along with it. A future civilization would be able to use it to make inferences about the time frame we occupied, our level of technological development, the kind of tools we used, and more. And of course, we would also be communicating our extreme determination to preserve something precious to us, as said future civilization could observe the sheer magnitude of this undertaking and astutely conclude that we really, really must have liked “Livin’ On A Prayer” a lot.
Still, carving an entire audio recording into stone strikes me as a rather wasteful use of stone — and I’m a recording artist, by trade. But what about carving some lyrics? Or a poem? Or a piece of artwork?
If our aim is to send a message in a bottle to the distant future, these would be far better choices of content. Once released, these simple, economical forms travel meme-like across consciousnesses, nesting dormant in the minds of their recipients until they are called upon. You can probably call to mind some of the more popular of these ancient works without much effort — our minds being the original random access memory systems.
It is no accident that these very old pieces of content have endured over centuries, either. The great pieces, poems, plays, and paintings of the past are vessels used to carry something else: the stories and myths that provide the energy to our uniquely human hardware. Just as our physical selves can not survive without oxygen, our consciousness can not survive without the stories that we rely upon to make sense of our place in the world.
It figures, then, that each of us can be described as the product of a long line of stories. I can trace the genealogy of my own surname back to the Boston Tea Party, to one Captain David Bradlee. Born in 1742, Bradlee made a living as a tailor before answering the call to join the American revolution, eventually becoming an officer in the Continental Army. During the Boston Massacre of 1770, Bradlee walked under the drawn guns held by the line of enemy British soldiers to help carry the body of Crispus Attucks — the first American to die for the flag — off of King Street. At his gravesite, there is a carved stone that identifies him as a Boston Tea Party participant. His story, however, is embedded into the much larger fabric of our country.
If we trace this lineage back down through the generations — through Civil War, Reconstruction, industrialization, the invention of radio and the airplane, a devastating World War, the birth of the recording and film industries, a stock market boom, a stock market bust, a global depression, the birth of the atomic bomb and the electric guitar, and a second, even more devastating World War — we arrive at my late father, Richard Chadbourne Bradlee, Jr. Born in 1948 and raised by a single mother, he entertained dreams of becoming a competitive rower before accepting a greater mission, in the form of fatherhood. Although my mother was undoubtedly the nurturing one in our family, he nonetheless rose to the occasion and set a sterling example for me and my younger sister. He was principled, honest, and a craftsman; in my mind’s eye, I still picture him with a flannel shirt, a tool belt, and a pair of work gloves, returning from some project or another. The furniture and fixtures he built for our family home were simple, with no frills; just enough of what we needed to get by.
When I run my hands over the things that my father built — a table, a desk, a balcony railing — I feel the same level of security and stability that I felt as a child. When I examine them closely, I see his story reflected in his handiwork. His quiet diligence. His emphasis on precision. His self-reliance. Like our ancestor David, my father has a carved stone to honor his life — a humble, dignified stone, in keeping with his character — but my father’s impact did not end with his passing; he simply became our North Star, quietly and calmly guiding my sister and I through the uncharted waters of our own lives.
A carved stone is merely symbolic.
A story is a transcendent spirit, capable of interacting with the living for as long as it is told.
Stone — with its ability to withstand the rigors of time and nature — may be well-suited for preserving information, but it isn’t the best medium for carrying stories into the future. Stories need more than mere preservation to survive — they also need reanimation. That is the reason we have musicians, artists, actors, filmmakers, and poets. That is the reason we have art.
While science can tell us what it is to be human, only art can tell us what it means to be human.
And only art — in the form of Walt Whitman’s Song Of Myself — can beautifully encapsulate these last few paragraphs in just six simple, economical words: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
A perfect message in a bottle, if ever there was one.
Today, we often forget what it means to contain multitudes. The phrase itself has been turned into something of a meme— to use a word that has similarly lost its intended meaning — and is now often quoted in service of vanity, rather than legacy. In place of engaging with the transcendent, our modern social media-driven world encourages us to spend hours carving our own image into digital stone, as a monument to ourselves. Not that we need much in the way of encouragement; the dopamine rewards are more than enough. Perhaps on some deep, instinctual level, we assess that our best bet for survival is to digitally preserve our essence for a coming, artificial intelligence-led technological singularity. Perhaps our ego tells us that this is how we might live forever.
Be careful what you wish for.
If we were able to enter a few lines of code and press a button to live forever, we would not experience perpetual bliss on Earth. Quite the opposite, in fact. Deprived of their natural seasonal rhythms, our lives would be robbed of all meaning. We would have no use for blossoming beginnings and finite ends, for discordant conflicts and harmonious resolutions, or for idyllic love and aching loss.
We would have no use for art, for art can not exist without the awareness that we exist only for a mere blip of time on this Earth. Look closely; you will see that this beautiful, melancholic awareness is gently etched into all of the creative expression that moves us. Every tragedy and every comedy. Every painting and every sculpture. Every song that has been sung, and will be sung.
Just as lamplight allowed humanity to manipulate the natural rhythms of daylight in the 18th Century, social media and the promise of artificial intelligence allows us to manipulate the natural rhythms of life in the 21st Century. The result is the stuff of science fiction: “Deadbots” constructed by data scraping companies allow the bereaved to chat with digital simulacrums of their departed loved ones. Popular bands have unlocked the ability to perform for their fans forever, thanks to hologram technology. Hollywood is floating the idea of using “deepfakes” to resurrect long-deceased iconic movie stars for brand new roles.
Of course, it all comes at a cost.
Young people — astute observers of the world that they are — can already recognize that something is dreadfully wrong. For the most online members of Gen Z, the idea of preserving their digital selves for the future hardly warrants an afterthought. Instead, they are reaching for a connection —any connection— to the present:
In a physically isolated world, posting is the only way to feel seen.
In a spiritually empty world, posting is the only way to feel alive.
Gen Z has its own style of art meant to reflect the spiritual crisis of our times. Dubbed corecore, it is a haunting genre of video pastiche that illustrates this modern crisis of loneliness, nihilism, and nostalgia for a simpler time. It is a sad irony that this style of art is displayed not in galleries, but on the social media platforms that are largely to blame for such feelings of alienation. Rather than being carved into stone, corecore videos seem to be frantically, ephemerally traced on the sand of a wind-swept beach by distressed, marooned authors. They are less messages into the future, and more desperate pleas to the present.
How might we rescue them?
How might we rescue ourselves?
I think of these questions quite a bit these days. Perhaps it’s a quirk of entering middle age —this feeling of suddenly being tasked with solving all the world’s problems while simultaneously becoming acutely aware of the multitudes of ways that we are “winging it” in our own lives. Of course, the more absolutist — or, in some cases, more enterprising — among us will insist that they have already found all of the answers, and if society would simply adopt their conveniently packaged, one-size-fits-all approach to life, all of these problems and their accompanying angst would quickly disappear.
If only life were that simple…
Perhaps the issue is that these questions — the big, existential questions that manage to keep us up on an all-too-calm night — don’t have simple, straightforward answers. Or any answers.
Perhaps instead of looking for concrete answers, we ought to be reaching for a toolkit — a simple, no-frills toolkit, with just enough of what we need to get by. A toolkit of implements made not from hard stone or cold steel, but from the ancient stories and myths that were passed onto us by forebears compelled by something much greater than themselves to ensure that these tales made their way into our hearts.
Of all types of stories, the monomyth — or the hero’s journey, to use the term coined by comparative mythology scholar Joseph Campbell — stands alone in its power to move us, time and time again. The basic form is familiar: the hero leaves the world of the ordinary and ventures into the perilous unknown, encountering threats and challenges that must be faced and overcome. The journey is both a physical and a spiritual one; a transformative experience that requires the hero to give up the comforts of a selfish life and accept the burden of responsibility. It is found in religious texts and in the Star Wars films; in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Chances are, it is found in your life, as well.
If there is any reason to be optimistic for the future of humanity, it is that this monomyth has endured over many thousands of years, and will certainly endure for many thousands more. Across every culture and every generation, the multitudes of these epic tales coalesce to form a bright, brilliant North Star to guide humanity through the uncharted waters of time. No matter the era that we find ourselves inhabiting, there is a story in this vast library that speaks to every imaginable human concern. Whenever we access this library, we are plugging into something much, much greater than ourselves.
And perhaps this speaks to our modern-day spiritual crisis, as well.
In the words of Campbell:
“Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”
If ever there was a time for artists to heed this call, it is our present moment, as the dark clouds of nihilism and hopelessness drive so many to retreat into the cold comfort of peering through a tiny window as the world passes them by. Artists are the shamans of the modern world, unique in their ability to access the spiritual realm and come back with something that may be shared with all of us in the physical realm. Artists — the real kind, not those that merely try on the identity for fashion or “clout” — will surely be the ones to lead us out of this spiritual crisis.
Not billionaire tech moguls. Not charismatic politicians. Not even powerful world leaders. Although, each of these can still contribute positively to the cause, if they choose to do so. In fact, we all have a role to play in this mission.
Just as we can find meaning and purpose embedded in the stories and myths of those that came before us, we can derive meaning and purpose from the very act of sending these stories into the future — not by carving them into stone or by entrusting them to the cold, digital stewardship of artificial intelligence, but by making use of their most perfect, most human vessels. We may not all be artists, but the Artist lives in all of us.
Forget Facebook; the true Metaverse has already been around for thousands of years, in the form of the transcendent world that we access through art.
Forget Twitter; the true collective consciousness has been with us just as long, in the form of culture and customs, passed down from generation to generation.
Lest we forget: Art and culture are the forces that shape humanity, and technology is merely a force multiplier. Each new communications revolution — the printing press, the telegram, the internet — is simply a more efficient method of delivering the stories and myths that power humanity across progressively larger distances and scales. Those that dismiss the art and culture of the past as little more than ancient relics from a primitive time are missing a much bigger picture. As Campbell reminds us, “mythology is the song.” To sit on the sidelines as it plays is to remain alienated; our participation in this song is the very act that gives us meaning and purpose.
This isn’t the first time of spiritual crisis that humans have encountered, nor will it be the last. But make no mistake: we are not powerless, and we are not alone. The stories of the past are very much alive and among us. If we choose to do so, we can access and reanimate them in our own lives. We can share them among ourselves here in the present, bolstering the spirits of others in need in the process. We can fold them neatly into beautifully-adorned bottles and cast them across an ocean of time, watching them sway and and swing as they vanish into the future.
We can sing the song of mythology.
And perhaps someday, on a distant shore across the river of time, some lonely, listless heart might just receive our message in a bottle and with it, the strength to carry on and tell a story or two of their own.
That is how we send ourselves into the future.
That is how we live forever.