Human Legacy

We don’t like to think about death. It’s a bit discomforting because we can’t know anything for certain about what happens after it. It’s inevitable, however, and we tend to tune it out to accomplish day-to-day tasks.

Fading

Near the end of our life cycles, we will try to create meaning and purpose that can transcend death. Given that death itself is utterly sudden, unpredictable, and permanent, this is never easy.

We typically want to create something that transcends our existence. In a sense, it’s an attempt to “live longer” by being important beyond when our body ceases to function.

The irony of this is that we tend to think about this once we’ve become severely set in our ways and after our peak competence has passed.

Generally, people never successfully preserve their body because of several reasons:

  1. The technology to do it isn’t effective at making a body last indefinitely.
  2. We’ve never been able to successfully put a soul back into a body, even if that person died a few minutes ago.
  3. Most people who can afford to preserve their body with the latest technology will also have subordinates who may not want that person to come back.

Unless we make an intentional purpose to release control of what we have to others, our weakened or obsolete skills will guarantee we’ll sabotage most of the potential we could have given to those who will succeed us.

Post-Mortem

Things often do live beyond ourselves, but not in the way we think they do. Our legacy won’t travel into the future with the pure essence we may expect:

  • We will influence people, especially younger people, in ways that they’ll find more purpose and build bigger things. This is their creation that was influenced by ours, not ours alone.
  • Even if we could publicly encode every bit of information for others’ benefit, time will distort and destroy the truth that happened. Books get burned, websites go down, archives decompose, and it will all eventually become a cryptic dead language if it doesn’t disappear.
  • With many creations, even with relatively reliable transcription and translation, the stories carry progressively less weight for future generations as they lose the context of the fashionable beliefs of our present times, eventually becoming a source of parody and hubris by a society that doesn’t know the whole situation.
  • Preserving a family name or group is also futile. The descendants of the vision will make their own decisions, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them makes habitually dumb decisions. Our guidance can only carry them a few generations until they destroy what we built. This happens even faster if they inherit the power we’ve built without the skills it took to build that power.
  • Spreading fear ends when our presence ends. While people know the names of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, nobody respects their former power anymore except small groups of historians.

Forgotten

To start, most of what we do will be forgotten immediately. Only the top 5% of our creations will outlast us enough to start a social trend, and we have very little control over which creations get there.

No matter what we pursue, we will eventually be completely forgotten. Either our posthumous influence will dilute through blending into everyone else’s, or we’ll be lost to time through history’s endless revisions. The only hope someone has is to advance a mythological set of symbols to assist a future group in discovering meaning their their interpretation of it.

This entire effect is also magnified by human nature. Young people tend to believe old people don’t know what they’re talking about, so they disregard their elders’ admonitions until they learn the hard way. By that time, they’re the old people, and the new young people think they don’t know what they’re talking about. This means that not much ever changes, even across thousands of years with wildly different cultures and technologies.

Even if we could theoretically add something meaningful to the universe, it would need an observer. If humanity doesn’t die from the sun failing, it’ll be the collapse of all the stars or the heat death of the universe. No matter what, if you go far enough the death of all things, including the shadow of it, still waits for us.

Worthwhile

We can find purposes that sits beyond this life to bring into this one, but that’s a different discussion heavily steeped in religious bias.

Otherwise, without any true certainty about the domain following this life, our best decision is to live for the present and the near future to the degree it affects the present.


Application

By the time most people start looking to creating meaning beyond themselves, they’ve become a caricature or parody of what they once were. This generally yields awful results as they try to lead groups toward something beyond self-interest.

People who are particularly intelligent are able to create meaningful results earlier (around age 30) as opposed to later (around age 45). This extra length of time developing habits creates a profound difference in their social impact.

If people lived only a few short decades longer (e.g., to age 150), they’d accomplish about 10 times the results. If there’s any truth to ancient religious texts implying that people lived hundreds of years, they’d have needed dramatically less time to accomplish anything.

Living for the far future is a waste of effort. We can’t prolong our life beyond managing our health and stress, and making anything of value that we can’t enjoy in this life is a waste of time. No matter what happens after we die, we’re the greatest consumers of or own works.

We can only find meaning in this life, before we’ve died, and there’s very little benefit to advancing the body of knowledge of any domain, building a new technology or creating anything new if we’re trying to be memorialized forever.

You don’t know how much influence you’ll have after you die. As I write this, I may only influence a few hundred people with it and pass on as a decent-enough person, or historians will consider me one of the “Great Writers of the 21st Century” in 200 years. It doesn’t technically matter either way for my day-to-day life, though, and I guarantee the future possible readers will misunderstand what I’m writing.