When The Past Becomes The Future

Time is stuttering. Good news.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow.

Before, now, after.


Everything we know has one. Even the most immaterial idea has an historical chronology. From the smallest particle to the largest one, each has and creates a history. And yet, despite the mechanical succession of the events, the chronology of past and future, today seems more and more like yesterday, yesterday like today, tomorrow like yesterday. A wider and wider time-loop.

Doc Martens are back. Again. Top Gun also. Again. Not that either are bad, on the contrary. Rehashes of all kinds fill our screens. Political, social, economic events loop in on themselves. Parliaments implode, institutions dilute in scandals, magnates rise and fall, gurus or robber barons depending on your politics. Yet, the Past is not anymore that ballroom picture in The Shining. Time stutters. A black cat crossed the door.

For all this, this reset is different. It is not just another linear timeline, a new storied series of events. This time around, today is not the logical, inevitable and obvious consequence of yesterday. This time around, today and tomorrow are a function of choices in using what we know, what we learnt. 

The Past is today so much more than a series of events frozen for the relative eternity of our present timeline. It is a collection of ideas, choices and possibilities we re-excavate, reinterpret, and recombine apparently infinitely into new contemporary realities. Yesterday was a given, today a puzzle and tomorrow an opportunity. Not so much anymore.

We recycle timelines. And, in doing so, we change the notion of inevitability.

We like to think in linear timeframes, yet time moves in many other ways. Our individual timeline remains a chronological reality born out of necessity. Cells are born, live and die. But we transcend this immovable narrative, to transform timelines into something new. The new narratives are not only chronological sequels, they are a recombination of elements to create new experiences.

Timeline remains a fundamental structure of life

Chronology, the timestamped succession of events underpins everything.

Let’s forget for a moment the questions of concomitance, origination, and look at how we feel life. We look at it as a traceable line of events. Our records may not be perfect, nor even accurate, but we process our life as a series of events. That creates also a universal language which we can share. I was on holidays then came back home. This basic registration of life events allows us also to compare, match, weave our experience to others.

Timeline overall creates the seeds of a shared reality.

Further, this gives us the possibility to establish our individual relevance, maybe even our significance. I was there at the world cup final. You were watching the moon landing. The events themselves have therefore a relevance in our lives in themselves as time markers before any other consideration. Events first mark moments, create shared sticks in the mud.

We define our own history through a chronology of events we deem significant, or we are told are significant. Hence, some events define generations. Not so much by what they mean, as to give us the feeling that we were there together. Apollo landed. The Wall collapsed. We won the World Cup. The Twin Towers went down. Kabul fell. These mega events may directly impact our own lives. If they don’t, they are time beads. My first day in school is forever a very personal event, not to say purely individual.

And so, we individually choose a string of events as a relevant chronology. It takes a personal significance far beyond the historical one. This succession of events provides us with a built-in, shareable background to our own narrative.

The choice of historical markers, personal, individual, social, national, regional, global, allows us to thread the events in a history. This choice is neither innocent nor insignificant. After all, just try discussing the XIXth century top events with an international group and you probably will discover some you have never even heard of.

Chronology is a basic, biological, necessity

There is a simple biological logic to the chronology of events, which makes it anyway a shared human experience.

This need for a chronology is probably linked to a very basic biological imperative, calling up our species life experience. At the heart of it, the logic accompanies us all of our life. Our own body gives us a time reference. Our life is etched on it. Our body records, measures, knows, and warns us of the passage of time: hair and nails grow, teeth erode. To order it, probably to make it manageable, we define rhythms, cadences, frames of interpretation.

As an example of this pervasive fundamental influence, a generation defines your age, your experience. Very true. But we came close to give it a significance not that far off from horoscopes: is not that generation moody, entitled, this one arrogant and needy,…? Why so much importance to generational definitions? The very tag “boomer” is a marker for the generation that invented itself the notion of youth, the Baby Boomers, the Hippies…

Students partying in 2022 to a song of Abba, would be like young people in 1980 listening to Edith Piaf. 

We define generations as a before, as an after, with wise conversations about boundary years, or the technology they used, or other clever criteria. Radio? “The greatest generation”. TV? Boomer. PC? Gen X. Internet? Millennials. Social Media? Zoomer. Boundaries so different overall than the influence of the Moon, Mars or Pluto, measurable, factual and all.

Yet, we move in an era where we realise that young is not better than old, nor old better than young, per se. How else to explain the sudden nostalgia for the drabbest, dullest decade of them all? Yes, I am talking about the 80s.

Individually, as much as collectively, we look for significance in timelines, events, chronologies. In defining before and after. It gives direction, purpose. Significance even. Yet, over time, we have started interpreting what should be only a factual observation into something more.

And especially, since the timeline looked like an immutable reality: there is yesterday when we did this because, leading to today where we do that because… 

From chronology, we weave continuities to give ourselves significance

To a large extent, the past, what we make of it, organise it and recall it, remains a series of individual factual realities, but their re-arrangement, their re-interpretation, is a creation to help us frame our own timeline.

How to detect how important is remembering “properly”? Just look at the effort we spent on this as a species.

Memories are per definition an instant in time. They could have different natures, contents or even durations. But we seem to desperately try to register them, freeze them in place. In stones, on stones, figuratively or not, and this, since time immemorial to keep track of the special importance of this or that event. We used handprints, sticks, ropes, beads, statues, paintings, photos, videos, holograms…. Truth be told, non-material preservation has not worked out very well across civilisations, whether Celts, Incas… And, whatever the method of preservation used, “forever” is but a couple of centuries away at best. That is, if we preserve for posterity. Or significance, individual or as a group.

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We could be recording, registering, creating chronologies for scientific purposes. When we scientifically try and record the passing of time, the succession of events, it is to try and discern patterns, inflexion points, turning points, milestones. Science probably sprung up from stargazing, crop cycles,… Recording change, finding out natural, scientific laws requires a set timeframe. And with the recency of data, it is not like we miss things to keep track of.

The scarcity of observations is mostly gone, what to keep is not anymore a question of necessity with ever expanding digital records capacities, the question is, what to keep, what to look at, what is a true “disruption” of the pattern. And truth be told, the one thing we do not have, is the time for hindsight.

It seems therefore logical that the usage we make of the past, far from being a frozen set of chronological events, observations, an historical chain of cause and consequence, is changing. Individual events have often been re-interpreted “in the light of new research”, but their causality, the narrative itself, is imploding through a totally new approach. We do it without even realising it. It seems an organic process.

As a prime example of the search for significance through lineage, European nations spent a lot of the XIXth century (re)discovering historical continuities in their ancestral claims. Not all were territorial, yet the Past took as such a national value. Source Photo @WikiCommons

Just look around…

Music, literature, politics, stutter, but we recombine it in new ways

We assume that the past cannot be changed, except in the realm of theoretical physics and science fiction. Events create their own trail. The past is like a snail trail. It remains so. Its significance does not change. But the way we see it, the way we use it, recombine it, has changed. Recently, before our very own eyes.

From afar, history seems to stutter, repeat itself. Events unfold like a sketchy, badly understood version of the 20s or 30s history. But, in this, the way we look at that past is not anymore as a frozen gallery of awkward portraits or grainy movies. Scroll through Netflix or Amazon prime: the documentaries, the series choice blur the decades between the 60s and today: Star Trek, Charles Manson, the latest docu-drama on Lucy, and other stranger things.  LCD screens seem to be on infinite loop.

The list of remakes of literally anything goes on seemingly forever.

What do you play at parties?

Well, regardless of your age bracket, generation or tastes, you are likely to be playing the very same music. Attend a students’ party. Last one for me, 70% + of the music was “historical”! Music stays, but what about images? Well, books, pictures, sounds, recordings are more and more experiential memories. WWI is not anymore fought by black and white stickmen with moustaches, moving in a grainy half-lit hell-world since They Shall Not Grow Old. They are young, dynamic … funny. Human. We understand better that one of them wrote “the Lord of the Rings”. Earlier, dinosaurs used to be just giant lizards… that’s what the name means after all. Today? They roar, they chirp, they even have feathers

Take technologies. There used to be this relentless progression from animal power, water, steam, electricity, oil, nuclear, plasma? Even recently, we still used to classify humanity, societies, even generations through technologies. Today, all these fade away to become answers, opportunities to mobilise. Even steam and coal is not “yesterday”. And woodstoves are making a comeback. Age, past are not anymore a value in themselves, but a set of logics to pick from. Atomkraft? Ja bitte.

So, can we recombine, recycle the past into a new future?

A lot of energy used to be spent on interpretation, linking events in the past to create a narrative.

The past loses its mystical intrinsic value as it becomes available to all. Old is not better, young is not better. 50, 200 or 1000 years ago just are, neither good old days nor Dark Ages. Now available at our fingertips, the past can be much more than the “good old days”. Today, the Past can be even a sensorial, tactile experience; it is only a matter of record keeping. 

What used to be revered, unyielding signifiers, are now building blocks to use to create today and tomorrow. 

What will we do and what else could we do with it?

Scroll your feed, read your newspaper, switch on your TV or radio as your generation supposedly dictates. Ever feel “been there, done that”? It is not only the passage of time, the inevitable feeling of déjà vu, maybe even age creeping up. Or is there something deeper at play? We dredge out, re-enact, replay a Past On Demand.

So the remaining question is: Can the outcome be different this time?

We know what could happen from pure recycling (pun intended). Fashion gave us not only a universal source of inspiration for Zoolander, but the parody itself was pillaged over. And over. And over again. You can only claim so much nth degree meta-jokes. But you never know. Look at Rings of Power. Even with the right ideas, characters, period, events, logic, … you can still get Vikings… or The Last Kingdom.

Recycling, re-combining, re-enacting, re-creating. And if you have the essence of it right, it can be good, or great. Look at Top Gun Maverick: same guys (or nearly), same story (or nearly), same planes (or nearly), same stunts (or nearly), same enemies (not nearly), and a great movie.

So you do have the Past everywhere: fashion, music, content, economy, politics.

We move as much laterally as we do forward.

We freely pick and choose as our tastes take us, as individuals as much as societies. It has timelines, sometimes concurrent, sometimes chronological, linear, cyclical, or looping.

We could dismiss this as intellectual laziness, lack of creativity, sheer Nostalgia. On the very contrary, it is an opportunity to improve on something that our ancestors could only dream of, but which we can act upon.

Our future can flow from the re-combined elements of the past. It creates de facto a new Past, not some idyllic eternally enshrined time, but as a dynamic, minable collection of ideas, projects, that can be eternally re-combined into new opportunities and experiences. Like music.

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