Sending Messages into the Future

[This article is by my friend Eric Gandy, a long-time resident of Stockholm, born in England].

The American photographer Edward Weston said “a photograph is a message you send into the future.” We are dependent on messages sent by previous generations to learn about eras and events we did not experience first hand, or are beyond the reach of living memory. History can be described as an accumulation of thousands of messages from the past.

Some of these messages may be sent unintentionally, such as the information embodied in artifacts or documents that have survived over the centuries, when discovered and interpreted by archaeologists or genealogists. What picture of the past do these unintentional messages send to present and future generations? The senders have no ulterior motive behind these unintentional messages, but despite this they often paint a picture which is not “true” in an objective sense. Just think about the messages sent in photo albums handed on to the next generation, often by grandparents. Photo albums usually portray happy families celebrating holidays, birthdays, weddings, parties and the like. The family photographer does not deliberately set out to influence the memories of grandchildren, but seldom gives a true picture of the ups and downs, the tears and frustrations of everyday family life.

Other messages to the future are sent deliberately with an intention of manipulating the thinking and ideas of future generations. The winners write the history books. In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell wrote, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Or as Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”. The many official histories commissioned from embedded journalists or paid-off academics bear witness to how widespread is what Michel Foucault called “historical revisionism” in a series of lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, entitled Society Must be Defended. This is often described as “setting the picture straight”, giving biased views of past events to justify past or current policies. In this perspective, unintentional messages from the past seem more reliable, if not wholly objective.

For events during our lifetime we can rely on our own memory, a rather deceptive messenger affected by the passage of time but still preferable to doctored official histories. What we remember, and choose to forget, can often be affected by personal or political considerations. In Alfred and Emily, the novel about an alternative life story for her parents, Doris Lessing describes a visit she made in the 1980s to the farm in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where she grew up. There she met an angry man who now lived on the farm. Doris explained that she had lived there as a child and pointed out where their house had been situated, on top of a hill. In her autobiography Under my Skin she described the exertions of the oxen as they pulled water barrels up the steep hill to douse the thatched roof, to prevent it catching on fire. She said to the man, “The people who came after us cut the top of this hill off. A good fifteen or twenty feet.” “No one has cut off the hill”, he said. Doris also pointed out where a big tree, the mawonga [moringa] tree, had grown. “We’ll never get off the farm,” she reports her parents saying, “and they’ll bury us under the mawonga tree.” “There was never any tree”, said the man, “It is the wrong name”. “Interesting, watching history being unmade, the past forsworn,” was Doris’s comment.

Each year produces volume after volume of historical books purporting to explain things in the past, books which often top the bestseller lists and are made into popular films and TV series. The authors of these history books contribute to our collective memory. But this approach to history is like trying to look back thousands of years using a gigantic telescope, looking at the past from today’s perspective and values. It is all the more interesting, then, to study the messages, unintentional and intentional, sent to us from the past.

When did all this sending messages to the future start? Who were the first historians? Where does the idea of writing down what you see, that is, eye-witness accounts, come from? And why did they do it?

In the past, messages were often sent by travelers who wrote about what they saw, heard and experienced on their journeys, most often in a journal or in letters to family back home. British missionaries in Africa, for example, sent letters to be read out by the preacher on Sundays to their congregations in England, describing their work in converting the natives and asking for more funds. The missionaries’ picture of Africa was thus spread amongst church groups in England with some authority. In some cases the messages were not so systematic or deliberately planned for a wider audience. This was the case for example with the letters sent by Mary Wortley, traveling with her husband through the war-torn Balkans in the early 18th century on a diplomatic mission, winding up in Constantinople. Somehow Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters survived for us to read today in Life on the Golden Horn in which she describes her adventures in the mysterious culture of Ottoman palaces, bath houses and royal courts. Ships’ captains were another source of information, as they often kept notes of curious or interesting things seen on their journeys to recount on returning home or to help find their way home again. In other cases the purpose of traveling was to collect and record specific types of information, for example by scientific explorers or industrial spies.

Herodotus is regarded as the great pioneer of historical writing based on first-hand experience, with his account of the war between the Persians and the Greeks in A.D. 490-479, The Histories. Little is known about the person Herodotus or his background. He was a traveler and observer, who saw history-telling as a way of understanding the universe, as it was then known. But he also used this knowledge to analyse moral and philosophical questions. At that time, most stories and messages were passed on orally.

Herodotus explains why he set out to write about what he saw:

Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks, among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between the Greeks and non-Greeks.

Millennia later, Herodotus became the inspiration for Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and traveler, who had Herodotus’s Histories as his traveling companion. In his book Travels with Herodotus, Kapuscinski describes how Herodotus was “obsessed by memory, fearful on its behalf. He felt that memory is something defective, fragile, impermanent–illusory, even.” But “man does not obsess about memory today as he once did because he lives surrounded by stockpiles of it”.

Kapuscinski worked in the same way as Herodotus did, describing his approach as “crossing the border”. “I could only move forward” was how Kapuscinski expressed it, and he did this in the spirit of Herodotus:

In the world of Herodotus, the only real repository of memory is the individual. In order to find out that which has been remembered, one must reach this person. If he lives far away, one has to go to him, to set out on a journey. And after finally encountering him, one must sit down and listen to what he has to say–to listen, remember, perhaps write it down…So Herodotus wanders the world, meets people, listens to what they tell him.

And that is what Kapuscinski did too. From the mid-1950s to his death in 2007, he sent many messages to the future based on traveling, asking questions, listening to people and writing down his observations. The message is often of transition, the crossing of borders. He deliberately crossed many boundaries, because they were there. The fantastic story in The Emperor, Downfall of an Autocrat is based on secret interviews with servants in the palace of Haile Selassie including his pillow bearer and purse holder. Other of his books books include: Imperium, about the death of the Soviet Union; The Soccer War on the emergence of the third world; Shah of Shahs, a recounting of the downfall of the last Shah of Iran; and, Another Day of Life on the last days of the Portuguese colonial power in Angola.

Just like Edward Weston and Herodotus, Kapuscinski saw it as his mission to send messages to the future to help us understand the past.

What messages are you and I sending to future generations?

Eric Gandy