We’re rapidly approaching an oral culture. The fluidity of the Web seems to have many aspects of an oral culture in terms of how we can interact with so much of it in a non-literate manner – think videos, audio, images.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. But oral cultures had methods for maintaining what was transmitted orally. For us, everything is going digital. How will we preserve our digital memories?
The Long Now Foundation has been leading a lot of discussions around how to preserve digital records. They have countless stories of how, just in the past few decades, we have been losing data and access to information stored in digital format.
For example, they mention how on the USS Nimitz, opening older files in newer software showed slight differences in annotation and the like. Not a good idea on a nuclear powered war vessel.
In the same article, they bring up a great favorite of mine:
In 1986, for example, the British Broadcasting Corp. compiled a modern, interactive version of William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, a survey of life in medieval England. More than a million people submitted photographs, written descriptions and video clips for this new ‘book.’ It was stored on laser discs – considered indestructible at the time – so future generations of students and scholars could learn about life in the 20th century.
But 15 years later, British officials found the information on the discs was practically inaccessible – not because the discs were corrupted, but because they were no longer compatible with modern computer systems. By contrast, the original Domesday Book, written on parchment in 1086, is still in readable condition in England’s National Archives in Kew. (The multimedia version was ultimately salvaged.)
The thing is, digital data requires software, in addition to hardware. And software is very difficult to recover to to its format, how it is compiled (software to make software), and how fast it changes relative to hardware changes.
In another article, they point out that the Society of American Archivists were going to delete their listserv data. Whoah. If the archivists are not keeping stuff, who will?
The Long Now Foundation asks:
Can anything last forever? The Long Now Foundation is micro-etching its 15,000-page Rosetta Project, an archive of data on human languages, onto a 3-inch metal disk it hopes will last at least 10,000 years. But we still may not have improved on 4,000-year-old technology. Asked what the most permanent medium is, Kahle doesn’t miss a beat: ‘The clay tablets of the Babylonians. Their libraries are readable to us today.’
Go and read these articles for more examples.
UPDATE 03mar08: I’m not the only one thinking of this (Steven Johnson).