Memory . . . Memories and the Fall of Civilizations


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What is memory? In its most basic form, it is the establishment of synaptic connections in the brain. But as we all know, especially as we get older, that is a temporary and unreliable means of actually preserving information. So over the centuries memory has taken the form of impressions in clay tablets, monumental stelae, hand-calligraphed manuscripts, runes, parchment volumes laboriously copied in monasteries, and ultimately, the printed word. The 20th century saw the arrival of photographs, film, video, phonograph, tape recording, and now a blistering variety of digital technologies. It is, of course, these latter that concern us most today.

Without digital technologies there would be utterly no way to accommodate the flood of information that is cascading over the world, and yet sometimes a question arises: Archaeology has been able to unearth and interpret the information left by previous civilizations. I wonder if it will be that easy for future excavators or visiting aliens to uncover and decipher ours. In order to read our technology we need other technology, and how durable is digital memory over long centuries? As durable as stone?

We have lost great repositories of information in the past such as the Great Library of Alexandria and through the wholesale destruction of the Mayan manuscripts. These speak to the vulnerability of centrally stored, non-redundant data. Today’s data is nothing if not decentralized and redundant in the form of the Internet. Most of the data, however, is on spinning media in server farms all over the world. The technology that makes it available is a web of wired and wireless communications held together by other data in the form of domain servers. Access to the data is by means of yet another technology known as search engines. As wondrous as all this is, there is still something about it that feels tenuous.

At least it feels tenuous over the long term, and by that I mean centuries. The curve of the increase of information will continue to climb necessitating new technologies to contain it. What is the life in hundreds of years of a magnetic disk, of flash memory? If and when our civilization does collapse from war or climate change or an epidemic of gout—whatever—will our learning really be available to future civilizations—ones perhaps worthy of the name?

Some very minor glitches are starting to appear. We have all had, or will one day have, the experience of an older loved one passing away. Part of the experience is going through an attic or basement or closets and finding boxes of old letters, pictures and cherished objects. I remember finding a bundle of letters written by my father from the Pacific during World War II. That killed an entire afternoon. What would have happened if those had been emails? They would not have been accessible over the Internet or by any search engine. And yet such normally personal things are often key to insights into history.

Caroline Alexander, author of The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, of course researched the records of the British Admiralty and other official documents, but she also gained access to private letters still kept in homes by the descendants of sailors who had been aboard the Bounty. These gave priceless insight into unraveling the actual story of what happened.

Dad also left behind a bunch of documents on 3 ½-inch diskettes. While there was nothing on them that was nearly as interesting as the letters from the Pacific, establishing that fact was a genuine hassle. Nobody had a computer handy with a 3 ½-inch drive. Ten years from now, it will be genuinely a hardship and beyond that might take a forensics lab. Useful data and records need to not only exist in public archives, but also in the attics and old media of ordinary people. With the rapid changes in media and interfaces, much of the access to such information may become increasingly difficult to the point that we may lose valuable insights into our historical and cultural heritage.

Just finding things could be harder as well. There is no search engine or indexer for a closet. I’m not sure what the answer is from a technology standpoint. On one hand, vast amounts of data and knowledge have been made available to almost anybody in an instant. Technologies for accessing and organizing that data have advanced as well. And yet, the preservation of all of this does not seem to have been thought out. If this by no means eternal civilization continues, the data will be carried forward on new technology—at least the public data. The private, often more interesting stuff is a different matter.