Context for Our Times
The kick off of the next presidential election has included conversations that have driven me to consider how we look at time in our society. Calibrating time, it’s passage and influence is hard. While we have many devices and technologies, none of them are capable it seems of simple measures of time which include a capability to include context. The context, for example, of how important something that happened in the past is in the present day. Or how impactful it is. Or something as simple as how long ago it was.
I worked at the National Institute for Standards and Technology for a bit. I was there when they devised a clock who’s accuracy extends beyond the time the earth has actually been in existence. An amazing feat if you stop and give it some thought. But for all its precision, that device lacks any capacity for context. It can’t tell us whether something was in ‘the recent past’, or perhaps a middle ground of ‘a while ago’ or the extreme of ‘a long time ago’.
Which is what I’m going to try to provide here.
Step 1: The LinkedIn Model
Think of how LinkedIn works. You provide it with people you “know”. If those people in turn are on LinkedIn then suddenly when you’re searching for … whatever, the people who your contacts know are included in search results. The people you know are labeled as “1st's” while the people that they know are clearly labeled as “2nd”. So these people? They’re not people that you know. They’re people that you almost know. But it doesn’t stop there. Because anyone who’s a “second” in your network? Well their contacts are also included in your search results as … you guessed it … “3rd's”. Much like that third or fourth cousin you ran across on Ancestry.com, there’s not much of a relationship there.
Step 2: Pick an “historical event” and ask the question
Let’s take World War II. Just how long ago was that anyway? I think for most people over 60 there’d be one answer. After all, these people were born in some proximity to that war. And while they don’t have active memories of it, they know people that did. People of other ages are likely going to give different answers. For my kids? The Viet Nam War was a long time ago. For me? I have active memories of when it took place. Which brings us to …
Step 3: Apply the LinkedIn Model for Context
Someone born in the late 1950’s would most certainly have access to and probably knowledge of people that fought in WW II. So for them, they have many of their “1st's” in their network. For them, there are going to be people that they actually know (or knew) who have direct experience with the war. But for people born in the late 80’s? Far fewer of them will have direct knowledge of the actual people who fought in the WWII. They will however know someone who knows someone or they will have in accordance with the LinkedIn model, “2nd's”. By the time you reach anyone born after the turn of the century you’re likely to have exclusively “2nd's” and “3rd's” perhaps. Or perhaps not.
So now that we have this primitive context model: anything for which there are numerous “1st's” in the population? Is a relatively recent event, active within the living memory of the society in question. Those things for which there are fewer “1st's” and more “2nd's”? Is a less recent event but still active, with many people aware of the event itself, how it happened in real time. By the time an event can be characterized as exclusively “2nd's” it takes on the character of a story that’s being retold as opposed to an event that’s been lived. As such, many meaningful things can be collected from those retold stories but they are obviously not first order sources of information any longer. And by the time events are relegated to “3rd's”? It’s probably best to consult local newspapers than to rely on the collective memory.
So for those events where we have many “1st's”? Those are “recent”. For those that are dominated by “2nd's”? Well they can be described as “a while back”. And for those for whom there are only “3rd's” or greater? Those events were “a long time ago”.
Good so far? Obviously the next question is so what?
Let’s test our newly found context on something a bit more sensitive. Let’s ask the question how long ago was the holocaust? Was it recent, a while back, or a long time ago?
Euronews.com recently (April 2018) reported that Berlin held the second International Holocaust Survivor Night. It is “the only event specifically honoring the 400,000 people who are still alive.” Remarkably that number is similar to the number of veterans still alive from WWII (the VA estimated roughly 496,000 as of September 2018). So given our recently concocted ‘context tool’ World War II and the Holocaust would seem to qualify as almost “recent” but at the very least “a while ago”. I think for many of us, when asked in casual conversation about something that started 80 years ago would respond that those events qualify as at the very least “a while back” if not “a long time ago”. But with half of a million people bearing witness to one or the other or both still available to recount what they can remember? Well … seems to me that qualifies at least as a candidate for “recent” but clearly at least “a while back”. Certainly not “a long time ago”.
Now let’s try something else equally sensitive, especially for Americans. Let’s try slavery. Because for most Americans, white or black, slavery happened a long time ago.
Clearly, no one who was ever held in slavery is still alive today. So that takes “recent” off the table from the start. But is it possible that slavery happened “a while back” and not “a long time ago”? And why would the distinction matter in the first place? It matters because context dictates influence. Influence on the present day. It’s easy to see with something “recent”. We have, for example, many many people who participated in the Viet Nam War alive and among us today. Even more from the Gulf War and more still from Iraq and America's longest war Afghanistan. Some of these people have been harmed in many ways by these experiences. So our society, from limb amputations to PTSD, still grapples with the influence of these events on us in the present day. And that’s pretty true of “a while ago” as well. World Jewish populations recovered to pre WWII levels only around the year 2000. So things that were “a while ago” heavily influence today’s world as well.
So then what about slavery?
Wikipedia lists Sylvester McGee as the last living person who had been born into slavery to die in the United States. He died in 1971.
I could have known him, although the odds were extremely long. But what that means is that my grand parents (who were born around 1900) could have easily known him or someone like him. As could my parents (who were both born in the 1920’S). That makes Sylvester a “2nd" for someone like me. Which would in turn make slavery something that happened “a while back”.
There’s an equally compelling fact that was pointed out in TheConversation.com back in 2014. People of African descent in the United States of America have been free for roughly 150 years. Slavery as an institution in the United States of America lasted for roughly 250 years. So simple math says that people of color were held in bondage for roughly a century more than they’ve been free. An astounding fact when you consider that we recently elected a biracial president. It speaks to an amazing capability within our society.
Should we be talking about the consequences of slavery and what to do about it in 2019? Well … I would say yes. Because slavery was something that happened a while ago not a long time ago.
And it’s repercussions are still very much with us today.