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The Future of the Past [Hardcover]

By Alexander Stille (Author)
Our Price $ 21.25  
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Item Number 158566  
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Item Specifications...

Pages   368
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9" Width: 6.1" Height: 1.3"
Weight:   1.39 lbs.
Binding  Hardcover
Release Date   Apr 30, 2002
Publisher   Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN  0374159777  
EAN  9780374159771  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
An engrossing look at the cultural consequences of technological change and globalization

Space radar, infrared photography, carbon dating, DNA analysis, microfilm, digital data bases-we have better technology than ever for studying and preserving the past. And yet the by-products of technology threaten to destroy--in one or two generations--monuments, works of art, and ways of life that have survived thousands of years of hardship and war. This paradox is central to our age. We use the Internet to access and assess infinite amounts of information--but understand less and less of its historical context. Globalization may eventually benefit countries around the world; it will also, almost certainly, lead to the disappearance of hundreds of regional dialects, languages, and whole societies.

In The Future of the Past, Alexander Stille takes us on a tour of the past as it exists today and weighs its prospects for tomorrow, from China to Somalia to Washington, D.C. Through incisive portraits of their protagonists, he describes high-tech struggles to save the Great Sphinx and the Ganges; efforts to preserve Latin within the Vatican; the digital glut inside the National Archives, which may have lost more information in the information age than ever before; an oral culture threatened by a "new" technology: writing itself. Wherever it takes him, Stille explores not just the past, but our ideas about the past, how they are changing--and how they will have to change if our past is to have a future.

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More About Alexander Stille

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Alexander Stille is the author of "Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic," "Benevolence and Betrayal," " "and" The Future of the Past." He is a frequent contributor to "The New Yorker" and "The New York Times."

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
More about analogue than digital..  Jun 25, 2006
Admittedly, I purchased this book because I wanted to read what Alexander Stille's understanding was of the issues of the future of the past, i.e. preserving digital cultural heritage. His concerns with the challenges facing those that collect and maintain heritage, either institutionally or personally are valid, whether they are analogue or digital. What is presented however is eleven chapters that are concerned with the future of the past, mostly analogue, with links, some tenuous, to the social and economic issues associated with digital heritage content production, ownership, and preservation.

Stille writes most convincingly when he is focusing on the case studies he is familiar with and drawing upon his understanding of history, culture, politics and print technology. He outlines the history, provides context, adds his own observations or relays anecdotes and it makes for interesting reading. He sites all manner of influences to the decline of civilisation as we know it, but the evidence he brings forward to outline the contention in the subtitle 'how the information age threatens to destroy our cultural heritage' or his analysis of that is fragmentary and superficial. It is not until chapter eleven where the issues being faced by the US National Archives are outlined that the he really starts to engage with this contention and by chapter twelve, the conclusion, there is simplistic generalisation and the debate appears to veer off into the evils of technology per se and the breakdown of civilisation, to the point he states: "Fragmentation, depoliticization, the decline of newspapers and reading, the personalization of media, the decline of the humanities, the replacement of the citizen with consumer are consequences of electronic technology's gradual replacement of print as our preeminent medium. If print was the technology that helped create our sense of history - the complex sense of periodization and cause and effect - television is a flat world in which everything occurs in a consumer present." (p338) which is very Doomsday-ish.

His final words are: "If people continue to feel that they are losing control of their lives and that they are losing their cultural traditions, they will work to regain control, using technologies in ways that we have not yet imagined." (p339). I think humans have done and continue to do this with what resources they have and through innovation and this is the golden thread that runs through his chapters, the human desire to hold onto the past, draw it into the present and possibly the future. This was the most interesting discussion point, about whether it is preserved "as is" and/or whether it is recreated, and that debate does have links with digital preservation in theories and methodologies associated with emulation or migration technologies and strategies.
Can the Past and Future Coexist?  Feb 7, 2004
"Stille takes us on a whirlwind tour of the world's natural and cultural resources, from the most prominent, such as the Sphinx and pyramids of Egypt, to the exotic, such as word carving in the East Indes. He shows that perhaps more than ever societies around the world are being forces to come to terms with the past, what it means, and how they want to preserve it. Approaches to historic preservation have been as diverse as the problems. The one commonality seems to be a heightened urgency of the problem. As societies have adopted some degree of capitalism and modern technology, they have often experienced a growing anxiety about the loss of tradition. As technological change has made available previously unimagined tools for the preservation and stuffy of the past, it has also brought about unprecedented potential to destroy natural and cultural objects. Social and geographic mobility has also had a profound effect. As Stille points out, `Paradoxically, the rootlessness of contemporary society has created a tremendous yearning for a connection with ancient or vanished civilizations.' He illustrates with numerous examples how this `double-edged nature of technological change' (p. xvii) is playing out around the world.

"Stille's stories demonstrate the common thread running through the debates about both environmental protection and cultural preservation: he realizes that `some of our notions about nature [are] deeply related to issues I was dealing with in the chapter on monuments and museums' (p. xviii). For example, he looks at the debate over who controls `endangered' resources or artifacts. Who decides what gets protected and what does not? The ever-present irony in these debates is that the Western preservationists, environmentalists, and art historians alike, concerned about preserving the past and diverse cultures and societies, often seek to impose their own Western values on the very cultures they purport to be interested in `saving.' It seems that the modernist idea of perpetual change leading to progress has been replaced by an equally postmodernist view that all change is bad and that preservation is the only good. Trying to implement such preservation strategies has often brought Western activists into conflict with the very peoples and cultures they claim to be helping, raising a question about whose interests conservation actually serves: the conservationists or those whose culture is being `preserved'?"


Excerpted from a review essay, "Can the Past and Future Coexist," by Matthew Brown, in "The Independent Review," Winter 2004.

classical encounter  Sep 15, 2003
overall excellent book though author digresses in last chapter with minimal basis, e.g., implying - through other thinkers - that internet is more of an echo chamber and likely leads people to be less politically involved. every other chapter is a gem unto itself ~ a fascinating work!
Should be Required Reading for all Students  Jun 11, 2003
This is an extraordinarily informative and entertaining book that sheds light on the problems and differing worldwide attitudes toward conversation and preservation. The author decries the rapid disappearance of historical landmarks, statues, buildings, art and sculpture - as do most of us. The modern effect whereby observation leads directly to degradation he has named the "Heisenberg" principle, based on the German scientist's observation that the very act of viewing affects the properties of light. Moisture, oxygen, germs, exposure - all of these are detrimental agents and all are associated with people.

He also decries the loss of those items that are elusive - tribal customs now recorded in any medium that have been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years, languages such as Latin, even - and surprisingly - outmoded technology. It is estimated that an enormous collection of data in the National Archives is for all intents and purposes lost since we have lost the technology required for viewing/hearing such data.

The differing cultural views on preservation were examined, from the rather recent Western one whereby objects remain in their natural state to the Oriental practice of repeatedly copying (in detail) ancient objects to the oral history of Africa. He rightly recalls that this process has been recurring since mankind recognized ancient works as something different.

But this book was also a personal journey since the author became intimately involved with the participants of this saga. From taking Latin classes in Rome to visiting Chinese and Italian scholars to reviewing the new National Archives and the Vatican Library, this is a "hands on" book that reads like a labor of love.

Our prosperous culture has created such sins as urban sprawl, deforestation, pollution, crowding, fast food - all of which directly affect not only the objects of the past but our view of the importance of past people's and events. It is this latter problem that seems all the most disturbing. A close reading reveals that the modern urge to preserve is directly related to the rise of industrialism.

What the book lacked were definitive solutions and perhaps that is not by accident. What is NOT needed are quick fixes or top down solutions. One of the things he has documented with sorrow is the repetitive nature of socialist dictatorships to screw things up with top-down solutions - whether it be Egypt, China or any number of African countries. Solutions should be from the ground up and must be in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants of the affected area.

Not only cultural but religious views have affected our past. How much knowledge was destroyed when the library in Alexandria was burned or how much religious statuary was destroyed in the first five centuries of Christiandom? And how many hundreds of thousands of paintings and statues have followers of Islam defaced or destroyed in the recent past? Rare is the culture or religion that demonstrates reverence for alien peoples and the products of their culture.

The final chapter sums up what we know, what we don't know and where we go from here. An important book that should grace the libraries of every literate American. Get the book, contemplate its message.

Fabulous Book  Nov 8, 2002
It's hard to put this great book down. Each chapter is more fascinating than the prior one. A must read.

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