How to Find Tomorrow Without Losing Yesterday

It’s become a familiar lament: Globalization is wreaking enormous cultural loss. Alexander Stille’s illuminating and engrossing new book, The Future of the Past , manages to drain the phrase cultural loss of its easy melancholy and explore instead what it actually means . In chapters set in an array of locales India, Egypt, Madagascar, Somalia, to name a few Mr. Stille makes his domain the cultural crawl spaces where tradition jostles with the latest trends and technologies. His investigations provide a fresh, lively and ultimately wrenching display of a world transforming itself irrevocably.

Mr. Stilles particular focus is the paradoxical way that modernity has both fueled and thwarted our efforts to preserve the past. Conservation of the past is a peculiarly modern preoccupation he writes, born out of a vain hope that we can freeze time and the vain notion that what we are trying to freeze is the past In a profile of the Italian anthropologist Giancarlo Scoditti (which, like most of the chapters in this book, originally appeared in The New Yorker ), Mr. Stille recounts the scholars arrival on Kitawa, an extremely remote island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, as a dreamy, solitary young man in 1972. Mr. Scoditti spent two years learning the Kitawanslanguage, cataloging their oral traditions and pursuing his research. Eventually he married a Kitawan woman, and she conceived a child before young Scoditti returned to Italy.

Mr. Scoditti has visited Kitawa repeatedly in subsequent years, continuing his research and spending time with his son (his wife remarried in his absence). In that time, the Kitawans have acquired a taste for Western manufactured goods and have traded much of their food surplus to acquire them. Theft has emerged as a problem, and many young people including Mr. Scodittis own sonnow refuse to partake of the island’s traditional rituals. As older members of the community die off, Kitawans with questions about their history often turn to Mr. Scoditti for answers. Mr. Stille writes, Thus Giancarlo Scoditti, bespectacled Italian professor at the University of Urbino, has become the repository of an entire culture, a small but rich, vital, and ancient civilization undergoing dramatic and irreversible changes.”

The lone figure as cultural repository appears more than once in The Future of the Past (perhaps because the lone figure works well in magazine profiles). The most powerful of these is Father Reginald Foster, a Milwaukee-born Carmelite monk who is senior Latinist to Pope John Paul II. In addition to his substantial Vatican duties, Father Foster spends an enormous amount of time teaching Latin at all levels to virtually anyone who wants to learn at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Mr. Stille, who took his introductory course in 1991, beautifully captures the monk’s zealous, quasi-heroic effort to keep Latin alive as a written and spoken language. Clad in his characteristic blue perma-press J.C. Penney jumpsuit, Father Foster bellows at Mr. Stille’s class after translating a passage of Cicero, “LATIN IS SIMPLY THE GREATEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED! DON’T LET YOURSELF GO BECAUSE YOU MIGHT JUST FALL IN LOVE WITH IT!” But Father Foster, like Giancarlo Scoditti, is a man in his 60′s, and a whiff of the tragic clings to his prodigious and unpromising struggle to make Latin relevant to our image-saturated information age.

Though the inevitability of change acts as a kind of undertow in The Future of the Past- in other chapters, Mr. Stille turns to the deterioration of the Great Sphinx of Giza, the looting of precious artifacts from Greek tombs in Sicily and the pollution of the Ganges River in Indiahe pays affectionate due to the enormous diversity that still exists. A chapter profiling the Somali poet Mohammed Ibrahim Warsame, known by his nickname Hadrawi, is less striking for the poet’s ruminations over the eventual eclipse of poetry in Somaliland than for the staggering degree of influence poetry presently wields there: Poets like Hadrawi are credited with inspiring armed opposition to the regime of Mohammed Siad Barre that ultimately unseated him in 1991. Because the Somali language has existed in written form only since the 1970′s, poetry is transmitted orally; in an odd alliance of ancient tradition with modern technology, the tape recorder has become the indispensable tool of its wide dissemination. “The poetry was more important to us than guns and cannons,” Mr. Stille quotes a freedom fighter for the Somali National Movement, who led the resistance against the Barre regime. To an American, the notion of poetry inspiring political (not to speak of military) action is so alien as to read almost as parodya bit like the Martin Amis story “Career Move,” in which poets are paid vast sums to take meetings with Hollywood magnates, while screenwriters toil in penurious obscurity.

The most disturbing chapter in the book is an all-American fiasco. It concerns the Department of Special Media Preservation at the National Archives, a place where engineers try to re-create technology that can decipher records stored by outmoded devicesin many cases, hardware and software combinations that are now obsolete. “One of the great ironies of the information age,” Mr. Stille writes, “is that, while the late twentieth century will undoubtedly have recorded more data than any other period in history, it will also almost certainly have lost more information than any previous era.” In other words, the Information Age is contributing to the erosion not only of cultural traditions throughout the world, but also ofwell, information. While the laws of ancient Sumer remain pristinely legible after 5,000 years, the results of the U.S. Census of 1960 are rumored to have been lost. “In fact,” Mr. Stille writes, “there appears to be a direct relationship between the newness of technology and its fragility.”

Which leads, quite naturally, to the question of what purpose our information technology is actually serving. Mr. Stille doesn’t ask this question directly; his book functions prismatically rather than by building to a dĂ©nouement. But one is struck, reading his eloquent account of the ever-increasing masses of paper and computer records our culture currently generates, by the sense of a system outside anyone’s control, a system designed to insure nothing more than its own perpetuation. In his chapter on Giancarlo Scoditti, Mr. Stille describes how the Kitawans have managed to preserve their traditions over hundreds of years without recourse even to handwriting: “The transmission of important myths or stories is not left to chance: they are considered the ‘property’ and responsibility of specific individuals, who pass them on to their heirs.” Information technology, with its implied assurance of exactitude and perfection, has allowed us to abdicate that responsibility, Alexander Stille suggests, and his artful book points to some of the consequences.

Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel, Look at Me (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese), was nominated for the National Book Award.