When I was younger, I attributed great size to important places. My grandparents’ condo, for example, was a labyrinth of rooms and towering ceilings. My cousins and I raced through the dark hallways like they were the Catacombs of Paris—stretching for miles, buffering the sound of our sprints and collisions with their sheer enormity. Returning to the condo now, I realize that it’s impossible to cough in one room without hearing it in the next. I understand why we were always being told to keep quiet.
This memory bias, cognitive psychologists might say, is my attempt to recall information in a way that confirms what I thought was true. My mother, a first generation American, raised me to believe that little was more important than family. We prepared for our biannual trips to see my grandparents like a pilgrimage to Mecca. Of course the condo seemed huge. I adjusted its size to express the importance of the experience. Instinctively, I knew that significant things were to be monuments in size and stature.
In many ways, the association of physical space and historical importance persists in the way we learn our histories. Consider some of the sites that demand our attention: the Colosseum in Rome, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Lincoln Memorial. While not all historically significant sites are enormous —Anne Frank’s room in Amsterdam is just 450 square feet —they all retain the dimensionality of space that transcends time and elicits awe. This amazement, it turns out, can help us learn. Social psychology professor Lani Shiota of Arizona State University studies how awe affects information processing. In a 2019 interview with ASU News, Shiota summarizes that “When we’re in an awe state, part of what our minds are telling us is that prior experience doesn’t necessarily apply here,” she said. “So what we think it’s doing is promoting a cognitive and behavioral state—and perhaps even a physiological state—that makes it easier to take in information.” Whether it’s an eighth grade trip to the Washington Monument or a road trip to the Grand Canyon, physical visitation teaches us to reconcile experience with belief, to begin the process of learning who we are through the overwhelming stature of the unknown.
Perhaps this awe can be quantified in emotional weight as well as physical size. When a trip to the Aegean Sea, for example, is out of the question, we often turn to canonical texts as the “great” books that will convey “great” times. According to the Open Syllabus Project, which provides a big data aggregate of what colleges teach, some of the most widely taught texts include Hobbes’s Leviathan and Homer’s Odyssey. If we understand the frequent inclusion of these books on syllabi to represent their agreed upon importance, it’s worth considering the width of these texts. While Plato’s Republic is also on many syllabi, its slim demeanor does nothing to declare a composition of history, just a piece of it. When I recall my first ever college class, I hear the sound of 12 copies of Herodotus’ The Histories hitting the seminar table with a collective thud. If the title of the book wasn’t clear, the weighty text claimed the enormity of the era it represents. The book itself was an artifact we could touch, a nearly two pound reminder of the history we’ve inherited.
What will future generations be able to hold in their hands? When our moment turns into history, it might only be a digital one. The internet, in its expanse, is our chronicler. For a complete history of our moment, though, it is also what needs to be chronicled. Today, tweets, posts, and websites are the tokens that represent our rise and fall. Should we erect a monument to Instagram?
The Internet Archive attempts to. Developed by the digital librarian Brewster Kahle in 1996, the archive preserves 580 billion webpages in its Wayback Machine like a great tomb. By the nature of the internet, the archive is more complete than anything Herodotus could have written. And yet, a trip through the Wayback Machine doesn’t inspire the awe of the Great Pyramids. Instead, it resembles much of what we look at every day: a series of pixelated images that can dissolve just as quickly as they appear.
When I took a trip through the archive recently, I found its enormity underwhelming. There was little awe. Perhaps internet archives won’t look the same in hundreds of years. Ray Kurzweil, one of the most well-respected futurists of our time, has famously claimed that the internet accelerates too quickly for humans to grasp what it will be in the future. In this sense, it’s impossible for me to know what internet spaces, even ones that represent the past, will look like. According to Mike Liebhold, a fellow for the Institute for the Future, maybe “information will be displayed, floating in air…the web will appear in the real world, not just on glass screens.”
However our history presents itself, I hope it inspires awe. To do so, the presentation may have to defy the increasing presence of digital space. Professor Shiota warns that overexposure to a particular stimulus can limit one’s capacity for amazement. If our relics look and feel like everything else, they will likely fail to impart our history onto the next.
My grandfather likes to show me photographs of his childhood in Syria. The color has faded by now and some are tinged with yellow. There aren’t any captions or comments, just a date and sometimes a name written in longhand. When I told my grandfather I enjoyed the photos, he made a point of excavating new ones whenever I visited. Eventually, my attention waned. I think he noticed. When I see my grandfather now, he pulls out his iPad instead of polaroids to show me YouTube videos in which someone else explains his home to me. The narrator’s voice is tinny and faraway. Everything looks small.