Letters to the Future: Hank Fox

Hello to the people of the year 3011!

Hank Fox here, writing in the year 2011 – whew! A thousand years in your past.

I’m an unaltered Homo sapiens, the original version of human, with exactly zero enhancements either electronic or genetic. (Well, I do wear glasses – those are optical plastic lenses held in wire frames in front of my eyes, to correct my aging vision.)

I’m on Planet Earth, the North American continent, living within the geographical-political unit referred to as the United States, on its east coast in the smaller subdivision referred to as New York State, in the somewhat historic small city of Schenectady.

I was thinking about my life a few days ago, the things I’ve lived through, and I’m writing to tell you some small part of it.

I hope you find it interesting. I had this idea of writing you, but damn, what does one say to future-people? At best, you’ll find me quaint, at worst, perhaps a bit horrifying. After all, I still eat meat, the flesh of fairly sentient fellow animals killed and turned into food, and drive around in a vehicle propelled by fossil fuels. (Not to mention the fact that we get OLD at about the age I am now, and I already, probably, don’t have a lot of useful years left to me.)

But … we were, most of us, doing the best we could back here. Most of the revolutions in technology and knowledge that would make us into you were still to come.

I also hope you can actually read this. I write in the colloquial lingo of my time, and I’d be amazed if the language hadn’t drifted in all this time. I suppose you can, though — if your computers aren’t about a billion times better than ours, you’re probably not even there to be reading this.

Speaking of computers, in case you find it difficult to imagine my moment in history, it was within my lifetime that the first computers were invented! We can’t talk to them yet — you DO have artificial intelligence, right? — but they’re still pretty fabulous tools, and they’ve quickly become an important part of all our lives. Even though I spent the first third of my life without computers, it’s already very, very difficult to remember what life was like back then.

Another revolution of my time was digital recording, which is really what I intended to write about when I sat down here.

I know: Out of the millions of different subjects I might address, it’s probably a very minor topic, but … well, another part of writing this, in addition to my hope that you’ll get to read it, was to shed some small light on my own time, for me and my fellow humans here in 2011.

So, digital recording:

We have the written-down musical scores of greats such as Beethoven and Mozart – I do hope you still remember them – but we don’t have any actual recordings of their original performances.

On the other hand, musicians such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Bob Dylan — all alive in my lifetime — were captured in several recording media, and I can watch or listen to their actual performances any day.

I can hear the music of Beethoven, but I can hear and see the music of Elvis as performed by Elvis. Recording – something more than just musical scores written down on paper – came along in time to capture the man himself performing his own musical creations.

I’m assuming it will be saved indefinitely, and some of you in the distant future may just possibly see and hear it.

It’s the same with movies, the technology of which slightly predates me. Though we have the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare, we have no hint of what they looked like as first performed in Shakespeare’s own time. But I got to see the movie Citizen Kane within the lifetime of its creator, Orson Welles.

I mention all this because it seems odd and interesting to think that the music or movies I can see and hear right here today in my own home, on my primitive computer, is the exact same music and movies you might see and hear, only a thousand years older. Just as I know what the voice of John Lennon of the Beatles sounds like, so do you.

From your perspective, I suppose it must seem like I live in the dawn of recorded history, this era when magnetic tape, motion picture film, video and digital recordings were invented. If I was to appear in a movie, you could even see me as I was, the way I looked and sounded when I was alive.

I try to imagine what life must have been like at that moment in history a thousand years earlier than my own life, and I fail utterly. Looking it up on the Internet, I find that these people were born in that year of 1011: Eleanor of Normandy; Ralph the Staller, Earl of East Anglia; Robert I, Duke of Burgundy; and Shao Yong, Song Dynasty philosopher, cosmologist, poet and historian.

I have not the slightest idea who any of these people were. And, really, I don’t much care.

You, on the other hand, will have vast amounts of detailed data over the next thousand years. That may not include much about me, of course — surely almost all records of me have vanished by the time you read this. Certainly we, all of us, consider ourselves immensely important in the span of our own lives, but being realistic, I know I made not a blip on the radar of history.

I’m not a president or king or renowned religious leader, passed through the glowing filter of history and turned into some sort of legend. At 59, well over halfway through my life, I already know I left no descendants, and my accomplishments, though satisfying to me personally (mostly), are not the kind that get recorded. I’m a small person and I know it — someone the transformative engines of history will probably completely ignore. If you find me at all, it will be me and not me-the-legend.

[Side note: Hey, speaking of legends, if you there in the future have any records of the U.S. president recently in office, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, and especially if history remembers him as some sort of great man, I’d like you to know that that part of history is simply nonsense. Bush was (and is) an incredibly stupid man, a ridiculous posturing little puppet who caused immense human suffering and discord. Behind him, pulling his strings, were a couple of smug fools who got rich and famous by leeching on his power and renown. I won’t mention their names; I hope the bastards are thoroughly forgotten, vanished in the noise of history, making their silly lives meaningless in the long term. Bush left office less than two three years ago, packing up his collection of human vermin and departing for Texas (the state where I was born but Bush was not), and people worldwide celebrated. As to Barack Obama, the man who followed Bush as President, the jury’s still out on his accomplishments but I like to think he might just be one of the better ones, possibly even a great one.]

Well, getting back to my original point, hello from the dawn of digitally recorded history! I’m torn between hoping you’re still human enough to enjoy our music and movies, and different enough that you see it all as somewhat childish.

Mostly, I guess, I actually hope you’re not much like us. My own private theory is that we of this time, and probably all previous times, are only about half as bright as we need to be to survive. If we didn’t wise up and make radical changes in ourselves, turning us into the smarter, stronger, wiser and more compassionate people I imagine you to be, you’re probably not reading this right now because none of our descendants made it that far. Either that, or you live in a much-impoverished world, and none of our recordings, including what I’m writing here, survived for you to be reading it.

Favoring blind optimism, I have some hope that we transformed ourselves into something more and better than human, so that you do actually exist, and that it happened soon enough after my time for my words to survive for you to read.

It’s intimidating, in a way, thinking of you thinking of me. It makes me want to be a better person, and to encourage my fellows here and now to be better.

I suppose that’s part of why I’m an atheist.

Oh, yeah, atheism – disbelief in supernatural superbeings (gods) – is another revolution taking place right now. And I REALLY hope this one catches on. It’s not certain that it will; it is sure-enough being resisted in my time by powerful people, and powerful churches all around the world. People in power, the ones who depend on the rest of us being docile, and relatively ignorant, and unwise enough to believe most of the things they tell us, seem to want things to continue that way. It’s kind of a predator-prey relationship, held in place so they can keep their power and money, but – damn! – it has some truly nasty side-effects.

Not least of which is that we’re destroying the world around us. Overpopulating it, eating it down to bare ground (literally, in some places!) and failing to correct our excesses such that some things are being lost forever.

[ Hey, I sure hope you still have whales, and mountain gorillas, and things like bears and wolves. I’ve gotten to see a couple of these creatures in person, and I’d hate to think that they didn’t exist in your time. I once fed marshmallows by hand to a live grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis), and it was just about the most magnificent beast I ever saw with my own eyes. I simply love the thought of being in the same world as them, and I hope you get to feel that same pleasure. ]

Shepherding the sputtering spark of atheism into an actual flame is something I got to take part in, and I’m proud of that. It appears to be growing.

But still, within two blocks of my home here in Schenectady, there are TWO huge stone temples to gods, and the organizations that built and maintain them, and conduct religious rituals, are given special privileges the rest of us don’t generally get. We look back into history and see people we consider to be superstitious savages, and we laugh at them, but right next door we have the same superstitious savages, and many of us consider it normal, and sometimes better than normal.

It’s disheartening.

Worse, I still have many friends in my home state of Texas, people from my childhood there, that I can barely talk to now. Most or all of them got caught up in religion since I left in 1974, and seem to feel that there’s something distinctly wrong with me for not joining enthusiastically in with their religious devotions. But it all just seems so silly and pointless, and terrifically damaging to the people trapped in it. If I seem wicked to them, they seem CRAZY to me, and more than a bit cruel in that craziness. In the things they believe and say and do, they actually scare me.

But as I say, I hope all that’s changing, and that you’re long past it.

Anyway, I’ll try to write again soon. I have a lot of other stuff to do today, and just generally in this period of my life. At the age of 59, I’m not getting any younger (as we say), and I have a lot to get done to make sure that I don’t end up financially troubled as I get into my more senior years.

I hope things are going well for you, and for your people. I would dearly love to see how things worked out for my sort-of descendants, and I think of you in fond hope that it’s mostly good.

With great affection, I remain


Hank Fox