Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Effects of Instant Heritage

Today’s public history class discussed the idea of “instant heritage,” when 1970’s cars are already considered vintage. Even the not-so-distant past seems far removed. Patrick Swayze passed away September 14th and his autobiography, The Time Of My Life, is being released today. No hesitation there; the past is being recreated almost instantaneously.

One of the biggest historic events that has occurred in my lifetime and I remember watching the news as it unfolded was the terrorist attacks on September 11th. I was wondering how much has already been written about that event and found the September 11 Digital Archive which boasts in excess of 150,000 digital pieces (40,000 emails, 40,000 accounts of the events, 15,000 images). Said archive is only example of the massive amount of websites that have been compiled about the events.

My father used to joke that one of my personality flaws was an inability to exercise delayed gratification. I knew what I wanted and I wanted it immediately. “Instant heritage” seems to pervade not only history-shaking events but also things as mundane as music (I was playing “Superman’s Song” by the Crash Test Dummies the other day, which prompted one of my friends to exclaim, “That’s sooo retro”... the song came out in 1991). That phenomenon seems to be a product of society’s insistence on instant gratification. I feel like this is simultaneously a positive and a negative phenomenon. It’s neat because we can see mass responses to earth-shaking events (what if everyone had written down where they were and what they thought when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? The historic record would be very different). I find it somewhat disturbing because it makes the near past seem so alien from the relentlessly advancing present. It almost reeks of a sentiment that as soon as an event occurs or a song is released it should already be considered ancient history.

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