When we look into the past we cannot help but judge people with the morality of our own time. In the future, the extension of human life combined with the acceleration of technological progress may enable people from drastically different times, and drastically different moralities to meet face to face.
The Generation Gap
“We just really didn’t think about it too much”.
He knew that this would be an upsetting answer for his grandson. The idea of such wilful ignorance was deeply distasteful in the modern view. Sure enough, the pulsing glow of his bio-reactive tattoo accelerated, the swirled patterns on his face and neck shifting subtly from orange to red in time with his pulse.
“Bullshit.” he retorted, “It’s all over the content from back then. Newspapers, magazines, blogs… full of discussion about what the long term consequences of your actions would be. You knew what you were doing.”
“Well I did my best to live in a responsible way, and I always supported political change for the better, where I could. I was just living my life as best I could” pleaded the grandfather.
“A whole lot of good that did” said the younger man as he brought up some pictures of the deserts, empty oceans, and barren landscapes that dominated the natural world of the late century.
The elder man felt a pang of regret as he looked upon the pictures suspended in the air. The products of a reckless abandon in pursuit of progress.
“Can’t you see it pains me too? I know how much we have lost. We just had no way of knowing how much sacrifice was necessary for us to survive.”
He knew it was hopeless to ever really bridge the gulf between him and the late-21st century native sitting in front of him. It was only 60 years between them, but it might as well have been 600. He was a relic of a dead-age, an artifact from a romantic yet incomprehensible past. The child sitting in front of him had about as much in common with him as he might have with a medieval peasant.
In a way, it was just another re-hash of the eternal inter-generational conflicts between parent and child. A grandfather and grandson, meeting for a tectonic release of energy accrued from a moral drift as slow and inexorable as the continents.
“You should have better weighed the consequences of what you did” accused the grandson.
“Maybe we could have,” said the grandfather “but we had no way to really grasp the immediate consequences of our work, let alone the more distant effects. We didn’t have AI agents to help us understand the intricate connections of the world. We were helpless.”
Since his time, the proliferation of artificially intelligent agents had allowed people to to truly appreciate the ramifications of their day to day actions. It could no longer be said that only hindsight was 20/20. How could someone with that kind of power really understand the chaotic world that had preceded it?
“And anyway, these kinds of conversations were not really a part of what we considered real life” added the grandfather.
The grandson met this with a confused look and a bluish flush across his tattooed face. He began nimbly employing his neural implants, gathering information with an adeptness that the aged man’s brain would never be capable. He pored over references carefully curated in real time by AI agents so as to best reveal to him the meaning of and the significance of his use of that term.
Nonetheless, even with all of this technology, he would never be able to really appreciate what his grandfather meant by real life. Over time, the compartmentalization of life had dissolved away. People no longer split their lives into neat portions of real life spent on some drudgery at work or school and those trivial hobbies and creative pursuits that would fill their free-time.
“Back then we had to be concerned with the practical requirements of being alive. Real life was about getting up in the morning and going to work. We had to go to work, so we could make money, so we could pay for a home to live in and for food to put in our bellies. It was all in good fun to debate the merits of this or that daily politic, but it was never more than a side-show.”
His grandson furrowed his brow. So much confusion in a single conversation, other observers would surely be tuning in to see what was up now. There was no more talking to one person any more, and surely not if it was a young person you were speaking to.
He imagined the digital crowd gathering around him, all coming to gawk at the curious grunts emanating from a prime specimen 20th century man. Suddenly he felt like he might have been more comfortable with that medieval peasant than the thing sitting before him.
“Hard work was our central ethos. It was only through hard work we could we realize success in life. This drove us to spend the vast majority of our time focused on achieving this. We focused on our jobs, we focused on our individual tasks. By and large, we were oblivious our role in the bigger picture.”
“What could have driven you to such singular focus?” asked the grandson. Another foreign concept to this modern man, more accustomed to flitting from one fancy to the next. Artificial intelligences had long ago supplanted the use of humans in any specialized task.
“We reshaped our minds and bodies in grand attempts to achieve the unachievable” he said, with a sense of pride at the grandeur of his time.
“We were out for glory. We wanted a legacy, we wanted immortality…”
He paused to take a breath.
“We were desperate…” he added quietly as old feelings fell across his heart, “we were dying”.
He felt a deep sadness at the thought of all of that loss that seemed so irrelevant in this modern age. So much of that old life had been spent trying to justify loss, to squeeze a few drops of value out of death. How much had his life been a product of this mortal desperation?
The miracles of modern technology had made a mockery of all of that now. All their silly glory, all their silly accomplishment.
His grandson was watching intently now. Death was an eternal topic of interest, the idea of loss was so abhorrent to the future natives that the topic always sure to elicit a strong emotional reaction.
The tattoo was taking on a shade of deep blue, and he could see tears coming to his eyes.
“How easily you boys cry now.” he said. In his time, such a comment might have been taken as an insult.
“Emotion gives purpose to human life” the grandson replied.
He had long ago gotten over the shock of such a pseudo-spiritual answer in this time of reason. He didn’t really understand of course, but it supposedly had something to do with the use of human minds in the planetary intelligence network. Maybe it was just new breed of the existential pragmatism that had given him his purpose in life. A new veneer of purpose to make life liveable.
“As long as people are here, they are sure to find a reason for being here” said the grandfather with more wisdom than bitterness.
That idea sunk slowly into the grandson as they stared intensely at each other. For just that moment, they were just two minds sharing a deep understanding. The grandson reached out and touched his grandfather for just a moment before the instantiation was swept away and his digital grandfather dissolved into dust.