Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thomas Jefferson in the 21st Century

I've often wondered what artifacts of today I'd want to take back or forth in time with me ("Which three books would you take?" said Filby to H.G. Wells' housekeeper). Electronic gizmos would be really cool .. so long as they don't depend on Internet, GPS satellites, or cell networks, for as long as the batteries hold out.

Even then I wouldn't be sure if people will gawk in wonder at my iPod Touch or burn me at the stake. And how much time would I have to explain the cascade of technologies that make it possible?

I was never a big fan of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. But really, it would seem far more satisfying to bring people from the past into the present. Once they got over the shock of indoor plumbing and electric lights, it would be great fun - and often more than a little embarrassing - to show off the tech wonders of our world.

I got to thinking about this again while watching the excellent John Adams series on DVD. We can revere the Founding Fathers, call them lucky gentlemen revolutionaries, or whatever, but it's pretty amazing what they came up with given the times in which they lived, and their inability to predict the future.

Thomas Jefferson seemed particularly interesting. He authored most of the Declaration of Independence and is the subject of quotes like JFK's about how a gathering of the Best and Brightest might have approached the intellect of Jefferson when he sat alone in the same room.

Aside from all of his political and historical significance, Jefferson was also an architect and an inventor. Look around you and imagine how he might appreciate even the smallest detail of what you take for granted. 20th century stuff for sure - cars, airplanes, radio, etc. But I think he would even more appreciate the expanse and growing organization of human knowledge.

He would never get over the shock of computing in general. Hell, I have a hard time grokking the fact of my laptop containing many billions of transistors. But the Internet in general, and Wikipedia and search engines in particular would really fascinate him. I can almost see him nodding in appreciation as he learns about inverted indexes, divide and conquer computing, etc etc.

Motion pictures would blow his mind. He'd seen plays, of course, but the simulated realities necessary in rendering special effects would really impress him. The Navier-Stokes equations had yet to be derived in Jefferson's time, and most people today have no appreciation of how essential is actual simulation in the making of effects. Jefferson would appreciate it, and his hosts would have to play tag team in explaining all the math, science, and technology that makes it all work.

Great stuff.

Well, that is until we get to television. Jefferson would be aghast, not just at the crassness and shallowness of TV in general, but the complete distortion of political discourse that TV enables. Watching Fox News would probably make him wonder about the wisdom of repealing the Alien and Sedition Acts that Adams signed into law.

Jefferson would be particularly troubled at the Idiocracy that is today's Republican Party. Watching John Boener and his blow-dried colleagues reciting their corporate talking points, knowing they are false yet having no shame in doing so, would probably make his blood boil. He would think of the massive sacrifice, the care of thought, the hardships .. and wonder if it was all for nought.

We might have to work hard to cheer him up ("Hey Thomas, you'll never guess what's at Mount Rushmore!"), but then again maybe he would enjoy retreating into the massive study and exploration it would take for him to catch up on the last two centuries of technology.

In that respect, Thomas Jefferson might find solace in the company of fellow nerds who know they can't fix the world, but do their best to advance technology and understanding when they can. And after all, he should be proud of his enormous contribution to history.

Pulling Jefferson forward in time would of course lead to the question of whether to send him back (he wouldn't want to go), but then early America would lose the correspondence he and Adams shared in their later years, and our history might change in some small respect from losing the fact of them both dying 50 years to the day after July 4, 1776.


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