Matt Sanford

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Surrounded by Androids - A Childhood Story

When I was a kid, not more than eight or nine, I had a recurring fantasy. I imagined that when I left somewhere the strangers just paused in place. Before I arrived all strangers would jockey into position and freeze until just before I appeared. It was like The Truman ShowView on IMDB except everyone was a robot. This wasn't simple, self-centered thinking – though I indulged in plenty of that. This was how I dealt with what seemed to be a system so large and complex that it was indistinguishable from infinity.

This was how I coped with the idea that every person had as complex a back story as everyone in my family. As did their ancestors before them. I didn't have a concept of how far back that must go but it seemed infinite (more on that in a moment). I come back to this fantasy from time-to-time and it has a humbling effect.

Infinity +1

Like most children I would invoke "infinity plus 1" when faced with "yes times infinity" and its ilk. There is nothing surprising in this but it shows a deep misunderstanding of infinity as just the biggest number. I was well into adulthood before I feel I understood infinity as the awesome and terrifying thing that it is. If you find it easy to explain and you're not vaguely uncomfortable with it I think you're underestimating it.

Equating infinity to the largest number is why I say I considered the collection of all human experience as infinite. I was a child saying "infinity plus 1" on the playground and still the scale of human history was mind boggling. It was so mind boggling I concocted an elaborate fantasy to help me avoid thinking about it anymore.

There is no doubt that this was all about avoiding thinking about it. I recall laying in bed thinking through people I had seen that day. Thinking that each has lived two- or three- times my lifetime. Thinking that each had a mother and a father who also lived that long, or longer. Each of those mothers and fathers had parents, and so on. It was somewhat unbelievable to me so I came up something more believable. Now, I knew my constructed fantasy wasn't true but this wasn't a game I played with others. This was a private explanation just for me. Just to get to sleep. My wife only recently learned about it and I'm not sure if I had ever told anyone before.

Lasting Effects

Having a child myself has made me think about things from my childhood, as I expect happens to all new parents. I've thought about the things I hope my son's childhood has in common with mine. I've considered the things I hope it does not. As a teenager I was sure that I would forever remember what it was like to be young – How could adults have forgotten? Well, I'm sure I have forgotten much and reliving things like this has helped me remember. Sharing them like this is part of recording that and making sure I don't forget.

Like many parents, new and old, I have also been considering the world we leave for our children. Even beyond the headline issues like climate change and perpetual war this is a intimidating thing to consider. How does one consider farther into the future than one has lived in the past and not despair? How does one think ahead to children's children and beyond and not feel overwhelmed? Are we limited in our ability to consider the far future or just too lazy, too busy, too distracted? I have so many questions and so few answers. With luck The Long Now will start helping us all expand beyond this.

But, really, this whole thing is so intimidating it would be easier for me if you were all just robots.

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