If in a far-flung future when the Earth has died, leaving only minefields of shattered Gorilla glass and the vomited innards of machines, the corpses of wireframe creatures with wires spilt out on the blasted land like entrails, let’s say some foreign species arrives and combs our data ghosts in order to divine the purpose of Valentine’s Day.
Based on the evidence, one expects the foreign species to conclude that Valentine’s Day may have been an anti-consumerism protest event, possibly involving an entity called Hallmark. Picture the extra-terrestrial visitors: Perhaps they are tall and hollow white spirits, graceful pillars of light that move together like an assembly of church tapers, casting long shadows over scarred earth. Picture them levitating, with spidery hands (maybe their hands are glistening like deep ocean eels), to mine motherboards and the guts of phones, puzzling over what a card company might have been and why this contentious holiday arose so that everyone on the social network Twitter could complain about card companies.
Perhaps the miners will be gray-skinned and hunchbacked, clad in atmosphere suits, waving tiny blink-lit data readers over a pile of rubble to gather the recorded voices inside: Several thousand Tweets from moping singles; several hundred thousand Facebook posts intoning taut, restrained snark, calculated expressions of disinterest. And even still, millions of posts that simply say “Happy Valentine’s Day,” resulting doubtlessly in a state of confusion for the visitors who as of yet have not gathered evidence about why the day is “happy” or what people are supposed to be happy about.
Probably galactic creatures whose civilizations will outlast ours, and whose capacity for space travel across vast distances has reached a capacity far beyond what ours will be for the duration of Earth’s life can understand the concept of ‘holiday’ and also of ‘couples,’ unless they are so far advanced that the passage of annual time seems something pointless or insignificant to mark, and unless they reproduce asexually, like sentient pudding.
Nonetheless, they probably would not get the ‘point’ of Valentine’s Day, ostensibly because the most expressive share of Western society seems to treat it as some kind of meta-joke, indulging it as a concept without ascribing much ‘point’ to it ourselves. Like, if it is a holiday to acknowledge the idea of ‘romance’ — one imagines advanced alien civilizations are quite logical, right? That’s how they are in films — logically, what could be less romantic than the need to isolate a calendar day allotted to romance, which is by its nature authentic and spontaneous?
The scene: A beautifully-architected white pop-up research laboratory, not particularly elaborate but ideal for the species that has erected a temporary Earth encampment in order to research our ways after we are gone. A holographic screen shimmers like a flat mirage in the center of the room, and the visitors have gathered around it to chart, in luminous sine-waves resembling an Aurora Borealis, the proportion of sentiments expressed via social media that ‘celebrated’ Valentine’s Day versus those that disparaged or otherwise dismissed Valentine’s Day. The chart establishes there were, in the heyday of Earth’s last millennium, much more of the latter than of the former. People who should care the least being the angriest, somehow, or something.
If by the logic of our visitors a holiday devoted to romance becomes an event through which we diminish the purpose of ‘gestures’ such as cards and flowers and candy provided to us by a consumerist ‘celebration industry,’ none of which are ‘romantic’ by the definition of the word and which are even less relevant to people not in relationships, it seems Valentine’s Day might prove to be one of the most perplexing social rituals to a hypothetical advanced species who might study us later.
Imagine foreign creatures aiming to understand human love; imagine millions of light years away a doctoral thesis penned by an alien on whether the relationship of calendar rituals to human love as it has previously been understood is genuine or fallacious. Imagine studious extra-terrestrial researchers, maybe creatures with silvery space-suits and long, noseless faces.
Imagine them fixing the blank, blackglass spheres of their eyes on burnt-edged and brittle Kindergarten valentines, sketched inexplicably by the parents on behalf of their children for the teachers and the other children. The valentines will be displayed under glass in an alien museum, pinned to something synthetic but resembling velvet, recording their imagined purpose and the date of their discovery on tiny digital placards in foreign language.
Imagine an alien scientist, a spindly cartilaginous machine, processing hours upon hours of YouTube video into a format that his foreign brain-chip can understand. He is a particularly dedicated researcher; the most recent expedition to Earth has concluded, and his people have returned to their dimensional cataract or to their orbital satellite or their microbial kingdom bearing contrails from our data clouds. There are ‘vlogs’ about love. There are ‘vlog collectives’ dedicated to long-buried humans transmitting audiovisual valentines among themselves, ranging from 0:23 to 1:19 in duration.
Assume this future society does not, in fact, reproduce by exhaling spore clouds, by asexual branching or by other methods significantly foreign to human beings accustomed to viewing ‘coupling’ as a necessary part of social development. Assume the extra-terrestrial scientist is held late at the laboratory, sitting in the last shafts of luminance emitted by whatever subterranean fungus, artificial star or other light source is relevant to its society; imagine its unusual shape casting long and lavish shadows, the glitter of its eyes in attention to all of its mined YouTube valentines.
Visualize the alien listening, captivated.
Imagine its transit to its place of residence, solitary well after the end of whatever aliens consider to be a work-day; imagine its return to its mate, and whatever long-fingered rituals in which they engage as greeting, as an expression of intimacy. What it would tell its mate about us; what the mate would say upon receiving, as a wax-dipped artifact, a Kindergarten valentine pencil-sketched in a child’s scrawling message in a long-dead language. Their alien heads touching gently together as they incline to examine it.