Near the city I grew up was once the Roman Limes, a defense line marked by walls, gates and towers, ruins of which can be visited in many places. It was not unusual that a farmer would find some Roman relics in his ground, such founds were collected and displayed in the city-hall, constituting an incomplete but lasting record of the past that puts our existence in line, assigns us a role in the story of our evolution.
Traditionally, information was passed on in the narrative, and later in the written form. Carved in stone, painted on papyrus, printed on paper, data could be stored and preserved outside the human brain. This enabled us to become self-taught, to extract knowledge out of books, to learn from those long gone, and use the same means to collect our contributions to mankind's ongoing strive for understanding and sense-making.
Today we store information on microchips, CDs, or DVDs and if you use the Internet like I do, in most cases I have no clue where or how that information is actually stored. Like this blog post, presumably on a server somewhere in the bay area, but who knows, and more importantly: who cares? My understanding of my laptop's internal organs is at best peripheral, what experience tells me however is when you drop it you're fucked.
Since my work consists of spreading my brainchildren, I've developed a considerate amount of paranoia and meticulously back up paper drafts on various memory devices and different servers distributed all over the planet, while hard copies get lost and damaged in an increasing number of moves. Passing on of information to the next generation? Gee, passing it on to my older self is hard enough. A report by the National Institute for Standards and Technology notes that CDs and DVDs might last anywhere from twenty to two hundred years , others are less optimistic and come to notice the average writable CD you buy at Walmart becomes useless after ten years. Chances are the backups of your '99 intellectual effusions are slowly disintegrating.
The way we store information today it is no longer immediately accessible to our own senses, it can not be retrieved and used without highly sophisticated techniques. A CD is useless without a device to read it, an iPod useless without a player, and if you still have floppy disks lying around you know that information can get lost in upgrades “Any file stored more than six to eight years ago and not transferred to something more modern in the meantime, in on its way to doom” writes James Fallows in his article “File not Found”.
Colleagues ask me why I bother to publish my papers. Worse, why I publish in print journals, dead tree format. Because I'm German possibly? I value permanence. I'm used to houses that are centuries old, and cars that run and run and run. I'm used to marvel at the achievements of earlier cultures, I'm used to wonder what they would tell us if they could. I publish in print because this is my life's work, I want it to be stored in a medium that will survive at least some decades, and I don't want that survival to be left to the believe that progress will last forever. Because if progress doesn't last, that's when we will need it most - all that knowledge which became inaccessible. Paper you can spill Coke over, you can slap mosquitoes with it, you can put in the trunk of your car where it will endure temperatures from -25° to +50°C. Sure, it doesn't get any prettier but the information is not lost. Try that with an ebook. Progress?
And yes, that is a tiny fraction of my mental output I consider to be worth the preservation and I can't but be stunned upon the growth of the blogosphere, wrapping around the planet like a constant cloud of chatter. Every day there are more and more people writing up the stories of their first or second lives, or comments on other people's multiple lives. They snip information in smaller and smaller pieces, pieces that are being picked up and passed on by others until they lose their news value. But after some years one can warm them up again! Blogs have no memory, as I learned fast. How far have we come, we, the species whose superiority builds on accumulation of knowledge? Upon the invention of large artificial memory devices, we're declining to a culture that laughs about the same joke every three years.
With every day that more people write, there are less people reading. The more people are shouting and asking for attention, the less people are listening. With every day that more people collect information, less people assemble it to useful knowledge. With every day we snip information into smaller pieces: an abstract, a quotation, a headline. What was once carved in stone and carefully arranged in elaborate argumentation is now crumbled to sand, tiny pieces that can be put together into every desired form, can be used to build castles of sand hosting beliefs of any kind. We have accessibility to a vast and increasing amount of data, but unshaped and unordered information is noise, is useless.
So, no, it doesn't bother me much that most of this cloud of chatter will never be read by a coming generation because it's completely redundant noise. But what then is it that we want to pass on, what are the essentials the next generation needs to know? How do we find out what is relevant without some sorting and sifting, without some judging and selecting? Do we want to leave it to PageRank what is worthy being read repeatedly? There ought to be something! If there's some million bloggers tapping their keyboards, every now and them one of them should produce a coherent insight. The problem is just: if we're all tapping our keyboards who is left to read it and find out whether it's meaningful?
|And the longer I watch the more islands of knowledge I see disintegrating, newspapers declining to catchy headlines, ads hanging in front of text, flashing blinking and asking for attention.||[Figure: Project for Excellence in Journalism]|
Reporting on results of a recent survey researchers on the 'Project for Excellence in Journalism' summarize that the newspaper of today “has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects [...] but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.” Which leaves me to wonder what then is investigated, apparently “the local issues”? Well, at least investiagive reporting is still “highly valued”, even if if can no longer be afforded since newspaper's “staff also is under greater pressure, has less institutional memory, less knowledge of the community, of how to gather news and the history of individual beats. There are fewer editors to catch mistakes.”
So what are we creating then? We create a culture of the Now and the Here, with people commenting on other comments, arguing without conclusion, then forgetting about it and repeating the same story some months later, decaying into “a cacophony of controversy,” as Alison Gopnik puts it. We are creating a self-referential bubble without permanence, void of any useful structure. Start with a random blog post: you'll be left with links to other websites referring to other websites, until you end at a 404 page not found or come back in a circle. We're creating layers over layers of social games, and online tools for these games. Networking is the word of the day. I've diffused myself over a dozen social network sites and now wonder who I am. We're talking about talking about talking about each others. And the titles of our posts are puns on movies we didn't even watch.
PS: Yes, that means the blog-block we had yesterday was removed.
 Daniel Cohen, "The Future of Preserving the Past" CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 12 no 2 (2005): 6-9.
See also: Cast Away, The Spirits that We Called
TAGS: INFORMATION, SOCIAL NETWORK, PROGRESS