Our Shared Timeline
Updated: Sep 11
In the era of social media, the idea of a personal timeline has meaning. We check that timeline for news, gossip, entertainment and information. Millions of people also check their timeline. It has become an addiction. What is happening on our timeline? Check it out with a click. Scroll down the screen. Timeline has a more general meaning from the narrow one found on social media feeds. This timeline is connected to our mortality.
We share a common life arrow: we enter at birth and exist at death in a timeline. Your generation, like mine, and everyone else, will come to an end: The Silent Generation born before 1945, the Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1976), Millennials (1977-1995), Generation Z (1996-TBD). We know their birth or entry into the timeline. What we don’t know is when the last member of a generation will exit. Meanwhile, we live in a world where the different generations share the same timeline. What is remarkable is each generation views the others as a tribe threatening their resources on the common timeline. We are well into a timeline generational war.
The generations nearing the end of their place on the timeline hang on to the end. Resentment sets in and bad feelings arise. Those near the end of their timeline—the Silent Generation and the Boomers, the old, the seniors, the elderly are often dismissed, ignored, blamed, shunned by the later generations as timeline hogs. Their time has nearly expired, yet they persist with outsized power, bending the timeline in their favor. These early generations are occupied by the pre-ghosts who huddle in the graveyard of the long tail of the human timeline. Power must be pried from their cold, dead fists.
Ernest Becker in his classic work The Denial of Death explored how most of human timeline share a common thread: we live as if we will not inevitably fall off the timeline and enter the non-timeline called oblivion. At some stage in your life, you will have a parent, friend, sibling, cousin, neighbor who reaches old age and is largely abandoned as they enter the phase of their own lonely death watch. Each generation on its way out faces a similar problem in modern times. The lesson is: Don’t expect other generations on your common timeline to include you and your opinions and experience as ‘timely’ or ‘relevant’ or ‘useful’. Modern society exiles the old like Roman emperors dispatched those whose presence made them uncomfortable. Seneca was recalled from exile. In our time, the old are left in remote locations far from the maddening crowd.
We need to remind ourselves whom we shared a common timeline with, and how that timeline changed since the time of our birth as new members joined and old members fell off. In the modern world, we favor our own timeline generation members over those from older timelines in the past or the future yet to be born timelines. We are timeline selfish and insular. I mentioned Seneca, one of the founders of Stoicism, who continues to send ripples from his timeline to our own. Mostly we see the ocean of life through those in our own timeline, we mistake a small bay for the vast sea beyond. The stones thrown into that sea of collective consciousness by Darwin, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Hegel, Kant and Nietzsche among other send waves to the shore of our time.
Most timelines for stretches of hundreds of years covering many successive generations have left no trace. No ripple through time to disturb other timelines.
We inflate the importance of our own timeline and diminish the importance of past timelines or future timelines. It is the double whammy of Dunning Kruger and pre-Copernicus that places us at the center of our universe, and everything revolves around their timeline. Tim Urban at www.waitbutwhy.com has a number of graphs that put timelines into perspective. Including one of the last 200,000 years. Each small square is 250 years. They are strung like pearls along a horizonal row which adds up to the equivalent of 6,000 years. That is each row contains 24 squares of 250 years in each row. Agriculture and civilization start on row 33 and run to row 34.
Looking at the history of our species we find 32 rows each enduring 6,000 years, with each of 24 squares in a row representing 250 years. Those squares are blank. Our heritage is one of a massive void. We have almost no knowledge about the lives of people in the vast majority of timelines. Our ignorance runs deep in our past like a Mariana trench. The past timelines have vanished; they exit beyond our capacity to explore and retrieve them. At the same time, these 32 timelines have structured who we are. They are written in our biology; they are part of our lineage. But beyond the DNA that has passed down from one timeline to another, we read their thoughts, ideas, social relations and behavior from a handful of bones, cave paintings, and artifacts. We live in an age of information overload. What we know about each other has expanded; it makes the last 40 years of the last 250 year period in the end of 34th row (where we live) hugely oversized in data, information and knowledge.
You can google lists of the top 50 thinkers, musicians, performers, politicians, scientists in the world. This list-making suggest that our opinion of what and who will survive and influence our descendants living future timelines is hubris. It will be for the unborn in a vast unknowable future who will make that determination. The future can’t be bribed or corrupted by popularity, notoriety, credentials or net worth. The kind of factors that bias people who live in every timeline. Most of these people will be forgotten. As in the graphic about our historical chart of timelines, what is remarkable is how the overwhelming forgetfulness erases not just people but whole timelines of people.
When we look into the past, we are doing so from a future timeline. No one in that timeline is alive to challenge our assessment or argue for this figure or that one for inclusion in the pantheon of people who made a difference in how future people think, believe, love, hate, strive or desire. For example, from our perspective, we can review old timelines and single out certain characters whose influence continues to affect mankind: Genghis Khan (1150), Marco Polo (1240), Gutenberg, Joan of Arc, Henry V (England) and Montezuma I (1390), jump couple of centuries ahead to Isaac Newton (1640), J.S. Bach (1680), Voltaire (1690), Napoleon (1760), Einstein (1870). (see Tim Urban’s Really Famous People, by Birth Decade https://waitbutwhy.com/2016/01/horizontal-history.html )
Let’s put our species and what we can expect to work its way into the future into a larger cosmic perspective. You may recall that when two giant black holes—weighing 85 and 66 times the mass of our Sun—merged 10 billion years ago. LIGO detected a gravitational wave measured a mere 13 milliseconds. One of the largest cosmic events to ripple through the universe blew past us in less than the blink of an eye. Where does that leave our individual, collective, civilizational waves sent to the future?
The next time you check your timeline or think about your generation in the current timeline of people alive, think of the larger picture of what preceded you and the vastness of what lies ahead after you exit. The past of our species is as unknown as its future. What we do know is the present timeline we share will form a page in a vast library of the human species, a footnote to a long evolutionary enterprise. Members of our timeline who walk amongst us today will open future paths that other generations who come after us may choose to take. We can’t know who these unborn people will be, what they will value or want, or whether they will be recognizably human. We won’t ever know who or why some influencer from our timeline will have managed to break into and change a future timeline. But we know that from past timelines some people through ideas, conquest or inventions created a future that would not otherwise have come into existence without them.