The rapidity of change has become proverbial in our world. We don’t seem to be able to change fast enough to keep pace with the innovations. Not only do machines become obsolete, but knowledge does too, maybe even our very brains. I can’t help wondering if our capacity to change has its limits; if the dilemma of constant change won’t someday lead us to jettisoning our whole mental cargo, like a sinking ship trying to stay afloat.
There are such individual acts of heroic despair in our midst. Think of an office-worker in the days of paper (not so long ago) who, despairing at the pile of unprocessed correspondence in his in-tray, took the whole thing and threw it in the wastebasket unread. Well, it still happens. Inquiring why someone has failed to responded to my last e-mail, I hear that the recipient had returned from a couple of weeks’ vacation and, overwhelmed by what they saw, emptied their e-mail inbox in just this way by clicking “delete all”. This sort of informational hara-kiri happens more often than most would people care to admit.
In the old days of computing with mainframes there used to be a “cold start” every so often. That meant that the system shut down for maintenance, and everything in process at the time when it happened would be lost. As a young computer greenhorn, I remember thinking: suppose everything in backup memory was lost too, and we had to start again from scratch? It would be catastrophic, but it would also be liberating. One night, in fact, I dreamed of evening rush-hour in the city. People were frantically hurrying to and fro. A friend I grabbed took the time to tell me that tomorrow there was going to be a cold start. That meant that everything would be over and forgotten. Everything. Contracts, guarantees, even relationships, even personal memories would no longer have any validity. There were only a couple of hours left in which to finish things up.
Now, in reality there could be no such conspiracy to delete the past. Apart from the case of harried users pressing “delete all” on their e-mail, no-one would ever take it on himself to pull the plug, to dump the entire past unilaterally. But suppose it was decreed by the powers that be – as arbitrarily as changing over to winter time on this or that weekend in October? People would go along with it, relieved at the prospect of casting their burdens from them. At two-o’clock in the morning it would be programmed to happen while they slept. Then in the grey light of dawn they would wander the city streets aimlessly, suddenly knowing nothing, turning blank faces to friends and colleagues of the day before, their eyes not showing so much as a flicker of recognition, and they would go into unfamiliar offices and boot up the empty computer systems. Since knowledge becomes obsolete anyway, the world would reason, why not do ourselves one big favour? What a relief! It might yet happen.