poly: Immortality and Historiography

From: GBurch1 <GBurch1@aol.com>
Date: Tue Dec 30 1997 - 05:22:23 PST

Some of the most important sources of historical information are personal and
institutional records made public only after the death of the authors.
Effective personal immortality or even significantly lengthened personal
lifespans might well restrict the availability of such resources for
historians. Given the obvious truth of Santayana's observation that those who
are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, any restriction on the
availability of important historical resources should be of concern to us.

The reasons for the relationship of personal death and the richness of the
historical record are obvious. Faced with their own imminent mortality,
historical actors have usually been more candid in their own private writings
than they were earlier in their lives. (Of course, the self-serving nature of
personal memoirs must always be taken into account, at whatever period of a
person's life they were written.) Knowing that they will not personally
suffer the consequences of disclosure, people are willing to instruct their
executors to make such private records public after a "decent interval", i.e.
usually after such time has passed that all who were alive during the events
recounted can be expected to have died. Institutional custodians of records
similarly often lose interest in the secrecy of information once those alive
during a particular period have all died. (Although the continuity of
institutions past the lifespans of individual humans has tended to offset the
"mortality-candor factor"; thus the significance of counter-examples, such as
the capture and disclosure of essentially the entire corpus of Nazi records at
the end of World War II.) Finally, even if the author wishes to keep specific
records secret indefinitely, short of destroying them before her death, once
the author ceases to function, she simply can't stop the rummaging of

Because these factors will be significantly impacted by effective immortality,
such a development seems bound to impoverish the future historical record. An
offsetting factor may be that posthuman beings will change so much across a
long lifetime that they may lose interest in the secrecy of records from an
earlier period in their life. However, this factor would likely work on time-
scales much longer than the current human "three score and ten" (or really,
"four score" these days). Furthermore, the "interpersonal privacy" factor
mentioned above will become much more complex: Since one will be able to
assume that most of the actors from a particular period in one's life are
still alive and will continue to still be alive indefinitely, disclosure of
information potentially embarrassing to one's associates or former associates
will be more difficult.

I wonder what other factors we might look to to offset the negative impact
immortality may have on historiography? What might the long-term effect of
this restriction on the historical record be?

Greg Burch <Gburch1@aol.com>----<burchg@liddellsapp.com>
   Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide
http://users.aol.com/gburch1 -or- http://members.aol.com/gburch1
           "Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
              be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
                      -- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover
Received on Tue Dec 30 13:16:35 1997

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