Friday, February 5, 2010

fragility of information

The Rosetta Stone, discovered by soldiers in Napoleon's army in 1799, was found to have three different bands of writing inscribed on it. The top band contained Egyptian hieroglyphs, the second an Egyptian script called demotic, and the third band was in ancient Greek. Since the Greek language was still in use, translation of the rest of the stone was possible. Both demotic and hieroglyphic languages had been lost to the Egyptians more than a thousand years earlier.

I realized a few weeks ago I'm going to have to take new digital pictures of the older paintings in my small collection because the originals were lost when the new computer crashed a while back. Now that's really not much of a problem but it made me wonder what would happen to society if all the computers went down? It's even possible that some catastrophe could strike, say a massive solar flare, that didn't kill us but did destroy the power grids. If something serious happened would we know how to put things back together?

Most of us have experienced losing access to music, movies and video games simply because the technology has changed so much in recent memory but we're generating more information than ever before and storing it on ever more transient media. Much of what is being lost is hardly essential. I mean future generations aren't going to fail because you lost the family photo album when your hard drive died but it would be a very different story if all the bank and financial records disappeared, never mind medical records and technical manuals. Every time Amazon tries to sell me a Kindle I wonder what they have planned for books. Paper isn't manufactured to last for decades either but surely would outlive the plastic screens. Most of the digital storage media that's used in the world today has a short shelf life.

So far as I know they never figured out what they'd write on signs to warn people in the distant future about the dangers around nuclear waste sites. I haven't heard about that topic in a while but don't think it was resolved. I wonder what kind of Rosetta Stones we could develop for ourselves just in case things changed very suddenly? Is it even worth thinking about?

Maybe we should be leaving repositories of knowledge for our descendants. Perhaps we should be making copies of wikipedia printed on acid free paper or carving the basic ideas and history of our culture on clay tablets that we can fire and seal away somewhere. It wouldn't cost very much and someday might prove helpful. It would be a good idea too if education covered more practical skills and apprenticeship - a reasonable alternative to current pastimes designed to increase consumption.

Every civilization thinks it will last forever, and none of them do.

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Liberality said...

As I write this big white snow flakes are swirling around outside. I've never seen snowflakes so big!

You already know what I think about everything being digital. I care about books more than I ever would a kindle. No kindle for me, please, or nooks or iPads or whatevers.

Steve Emery said...

I think the book will continue to exist because people will still want them.

As for the digital - provided there is no major catastrophe such as you ponder, I think digital storage creates a kind of evolution for knowledge, where the "fittest" information is the most widely dispersed, most used, and therefore the most safe from loss. Like you, I think it wise to have important information in other forms than just digital. I'm encouraged by the growth of demand for hand made and finely crafted unique items, and the way people rediscover plain simple pastimes and skills for personal enrichment and amusement. Roof thatching, for instance, was an almost lost art, but quite a number of people have revived it for various reasons, saving the knowledge of the last few masters, who I read were about to pass away without apprentices several decades ago. The more widespread interests become, and the easier it is for a wider audience to be exposed to these interesting crafts and hobbies, the more people are likely to find some obsession which they can carry to a high form and in turn share with a small fanatical group as well as with the world at large through media like YouTube, Flickr, and others. I'm pretty old fashioned about things like books - and I think Kindles are crazy as a means of "keeping" books - but I'm encouraged, overall, by the electronic diaspora of knowledge and images and perspectives. It may also increase the chances for peace on Earth.

marja-leena said...

All excellent points, many of which have come up as a computer user of course. I'm horrified at the suggestion that books would no longer exist. I think we can have all forms of records around so that at least something will survive any future disaster. I love paper, acid-free of course :-)

linda said...

since i tend to shy away from most technology other than my little mac and then, if something goes wrong, it lands in husband's lap while i go read a book or paint, i don't even know how or really what kindle is...a book on an ipod type thing i would imagine but isn't that ridiculous i don't even know? well, maybe not, i have been thinking about this lately and really don't know how fragile is the technological desert we are wandering in but i am keeping what is near and dear to myself on paper, in books, something i can really get ahold of because it seems to be the most tangible...and in the end, it is all illusion anyway.. ;)

if we are in trouble, i hope it won't much matter to me and i have yet to get husband to pay bills online as he is SURE something will go wrong, we are just old farts up here and will go on in our little ruts doing things the hardest, most old fashioned way, ignoring the rest of the world, for the most part...except except get it..

susan said...

liberality - The big puffy snowflakes are my favorites. Are you going out to make snow angels?

steve - Yes, I'm certainly one who likes books too. There will always be personal bookshelves - at least as long as people are around.

It's true that many people have taken up some pretty abstruse hobbies and avocations in the latter decades and that's all to the good. The internets have provided so many of us with in-depth information about multiple subjects that it's impossible to for one person to even begin to explore every part. It's actually pretty exciting. It's also very encouraging that we're able to talk to people from other lands with very disparate cultures and histories. The idea it may lead to world peace is an entirely realistic possibility.

marja-leena - There's nobody who owns a computer that hasn't suffered some sort of hard drive failure. I took the thought and extrapolated a bit wondering if anybody would come up with other ways of preserving knowledge of important skills. I'm sure you have expertise at multiple levels.

linda - How cool you arrived just as I was writing. I'm much like you in not not being tech oriented. In fact, if it weren't for my husband I wouldn't be able to watch movies anymore because I have no idea how to operate our Sony Brevia flat screen with the multiple gaming, blue ray and dvd players attached. He takes care of our computers when any problems occur too BUT I did learn to use blogger :-) and I can use the digital camera now and the scanner because it's so very nice to be able to share my paintings etc. We learn what we want to learn, I guess. I don't want to learn the Kindle (weird name for an alternative reading mechanism that essentially means starting a fire) - it's a screen you can download books to.

We don't use online bill paying either (even though our bank charges us for a service we never asked for!). Besides, I like our mailman.

Randal Graves said...

I knew there was a reason I still buy CDs instead of download.

Steve's right: there's always going to be at least a few of us weirdo book-lovers that will keep 100% digitizing from occurring.

Seraphine said...

interesting thoughts, susan. there have indeed been times when the "light" has previously dimmed for for mankind and civilization-- think about enlightened greece, rome, china, and the middle east, for example, before 600 yeas of the dark ages and obscurity descended upon the western world. and that was not an historically isolated event of reverse progress.

which is why i have a backup hard drive, so i don't lose baha men's classic mp3 don't let the dogs out.

Seraphine said...

p.s. sorry if i can't put a sensible sentence together. i have bronchitis. i'm sick and should be in bed.

susan said...

randal - Buying them helps the musicians stay in business and that's a good thing.

sera - Yes, it was actually thanks to Arabian scholars that scientific knowledge and the arts were returned to Europe as the dark ages ended. Nobody remembers what we owe those people but that's no surprise, is it?

I'm sorry to hear you are ill so I hope you've been taking some time to look after yourself. Your post this weekend was a beauty as usual.

jams o donnell said...

That's the problem.. it is almost certainly going to be the case that our digital methods of storing music and literature and photographs will be incompatible with technological advances.. Paper, if treated properly will outlive them all

Pagan Sphinx said...

I agree with Steve that people will always want books. What I worry about is a sort Brave New World scenario where certain types of old texts will be obsolete except to the handful of people who understand their importance in history.

We've heard of book burnings. Well, what if digitally-stored materials were deleted or destroyed because some faction of society did not agree with the content?

We've seen the screening and filtering of web information that the Chinese have cracked down upon with google.

I can't think of any way to preserve anything that is important to me other than to keep the paper or the print or the thing itself.

I like how your mind works! Keep putting your ideas out to us. But be sure to write them down in a notebook, too! ;-)

susan said...

jams - The problem with backward compatibility has been well noted around here.

pagan sphinx - We learned a few years ago that unsold books were being destroyed rather than warehoused - a fact we found very troubling in the cultural implications. The thing about digitally stored materials is that they're very easy to change depending, as you say, upon current popular opinions.

I know it's probably silly to worry about the world a thousand years from now but sometimes I can't help but wonder about the legacy we'll leave for future generations.

Nancy said...

I wonder about the same things. We are increasingly dependent on electricity, yet we are not building many new sources. I do think we will reach some sort of electricity crises in the future.

I loved the poem by Shelley. I think often about our legacy, and what will replace our civilization.

The Crow said...


susan said...

nancy - I've been reading about small towns in Europe going off-grid by supplying their own electrical needs by placing solar panels on the roofs of their homes. I think even in Tahoe you probably get enough sunlight most of the year to make it practical and if those around you did it too there'd be a good community start even if it were just enough to supply hot water at first. The power companies in this country just don't seem to want to share power (:-)) so don't encourage it.

I think I wanted an excuse to post that poem.

the crow - ((((^_^))))

Sean Jeating said...

Good thoughts, inclusive the one whether it's even worth thinking about. :)

Apropos 'Rosetta': I am looking forward to 2014.

Ah, and Shelley ... :)

susan said...

sean - It simply irritates me that for such a smart bunch we're more than equally likely to destroy ourselves. Imagine what we could have accomplished by now if not for just the last 500 years of war? I'm glad other countries are getting into space exploration. Goodness knows it might be a reasonable idea to have an outpost on Mars.