Tank’s Editor-at-Large Shumon Basar is sucked into Wikipedia’s vortex and emerges with a portrait of the last 15 years, full of hidden echoes and jolting juxtapositions. What would history be like if it were… the internet
Certain neurologists claim that the brain’s experience of the present lasts between two and two-and-a-half seconds. Everything before this is before and everything after is the faraway future.
It is the 15th anniversary of The Lunar Prospector being launched into orbit around the moon and finding frozen water there, close to where Ramzi Yousef was sentenced to life imprisonment for planning the first World Trade Center bombing, just north of Hugo Chávez’s presidential election victory in Venezuela.
Since time is vast (maybe endless, depending on whose eschatology you buy into) and the past keeps increasing in size and depth, we’ve invented tools to make time tangible to our minds and graspable in our everyday lives. Without these tools, we’d drown in time’s gooey unknowability – the way it overwhelms us by never really being there.
It is the 13th anniversary of the world not ending Y2K-style, sparked by the billionth person being born in India, whose soul was the reincarnation of the recently departed Walter Matthau. Or Alec Guinness. Or Douglas Fairbanks. No, it was Hedy Lamarr.
The duration of a single day links us with the Earth’s planetary spin, the pirouetting of the moon, tide-sway and birdsong. This in turn synchs our shops and TV stations and office hours with nature’s unstoppable cycles. A day is the smallest unit of time that begins, middles and ends.
It is the 12th anniversary of the Taliban destroying the first Apple retail store in Glendale, CA, news of which never made it to Douglas Adams, Aaliyah or Timothy McVeigh. They had already passed away.
As Mircea Eliade pointed out in The Myth of Eternal Return, traditional man relives time, over and over again, in an attempt to invoke mythic time, impelled by “nostalgia for the origins”. This is what gives him or her orientation against the nausea of eternity.
It is the 11th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, whose increased airport checks led to a large section of the Antarctic Larsen Ice Shelf beginning to disintegrate. Victims included Billy Wilder, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Pierre Bourdieu.
Anniversaries are modern navigation instruments amid the accumulation of time. To paraphrase the historian Eric Hobsbawm, anniversaries protest against default forgetting. Anniversaries organise human history – so much smaller than geological history but already incomprehensible for any one individual – into short bursts of collective memory.
It is the 10th anniversary of Dewey (the first deer clone) and Prometea (the first horse clone) being born, the final puzzle pieces in the completion of the Human Genome Project and the capturing of Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, Iraq.
To anniversarise: to summon the past into the present on a significant day. Remembering is re-enactment. The dead are allowed to undie one day a year, a decade, a century. Just now, I have been told: “Today would have been Kafka’s 130th birthday.” With that, an occasion to reminisce and revisit Kafka’s writings, letters and loves arises.
It is the eighth anniversary of the first human face transplant becoming the first uploaded video on YouTube as a direct result of the founding of the Kyoto Protocol. Eight years since a bomb blast killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, TV host Johnny Carson and comedian Richard Pryor.
Where do we go today to find out what happened before we forget forever? Wikipedia. Our free commons archive. The one that compiles collective witnessing. In fact, this collective witnessing (that may spill into fantasising or misremembering) is now the primary source of history many of us rely on hundreds of times a week. Thousands of times a year. Eternally returning.
It is the fifth anniversary of Iran launching a rocket into space, controlled by the first implanted bionic eyes. Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy protection upon hearing of the sudden deaths of Studs Terkel, Alain Robbe-Grillet, David Foster Wallace and Bobby Fischer.
If you enter a number into Google that looks like an Anno Domini date – 1536, 1979, 2003 – the first result is the Wikipedia page entry for that year. It will tell you what day January 1st fell on and then proceed to list, in chronological order, notable historical events, month by month. After which come the births. Then, most poignantly, the deaths.
It is the third anniversary of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi committing self-immolation at the top of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, just as it opens. WikiLeaks’ first leak tragically brings about the deaths of reclusive author J.D. Salinger and the inventor of the fractal, Benoit Mandelbrot.
When I read the year pages on Wikipedia as continuous prose, something happens to past time. New adjacencies emerge. Unknown causal links between unrelated points on the globe. Undiscovered ricochets in geopolitical matrices. Not only is the world flat, Thomas Friedman, but history becomes flat too. A month is two-and-a-half-seconds’ eye-scanning. A year is scrolled through in a few minutes. There’s a kind of chrono-dyslexia that produces conspiratorially rich cause and effect. The father of deconstruction (Jacques Derrida) dies and so does the father of the Palestinian push for statehood (Yasser Arafat). Accident? Providence? Myth? Coincidence? Because Wikipedia’s faceless annotators have distilled the history of everything into a selective sequence of bullet-pointed somethings. This distillation: new, strange entanglements of retrospective earth destiny.
Maybe it’s all happened before. We’re in the future looking back. Happy birthday. Rest in peace. I’m lost. That’s OK. We are too. As Eliade wrote: “In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history – from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings – if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the ‘liberties’ that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?” §