So Let It Be Written, So Let it Be Gone

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Posted March 26, 2009 in Feature Story

It’s the year 2020, and it’s an annum heralded as “The Year of Perfect Vision.” The world has completed its conversion to an all-digital lifestyle. Print media has virtually disappeared, save for the smattering of old school cranks who can’t give up their Gutenberg presses, the ones who insist that an evil genie is poised to one day pop out of the bottle and bring holy destruction to society if people continue saving vital information on disembodied portals that no one can even see.

 

The warnings are laughed off. The hysteria of a prior generation’s Y2K panic is occasionally trotted out as evidence of prehistoric existence. Life is free and easy, the technology craze of the past 10 years making the days of Blackberries and Twittering seem as quaint as rabbit ears are today.  

 

Then, suddenly, with no warning, the digital age ends. All information is wiped out. Completely. It’s a global crisis. The result is chaos: wars, famine, a total restructuring of humankind.  

 

Many years later, historians and anthropologists are charged to sift through the rubble and reconstruct exactly what happened. It’s nearly an impossible task. Barely any primary sources of information survive the digital meltdown.

 

Except print media—books and magazines and newspapers. The printed word, amazingly resilient, is dug up by archeologists and revered like it was a hieroglyph extracted from an Egyptian tomb.  

 

Our history remains alive, thanks to a smattering of old school cranks.

 

*

 

Doomsday scenarios are fun to toss around. It’s what makes science fiction sing. Outlandish proclamations make good copy for writers and fodder for talk shows. But no one truly believes they can actually happen. Then again, we religiously adhere to “laws of nature,” the king of which is Murphy’s Law, which says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

 

Just ask the folks at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. If, ten years ago, you had predicted the newspaper, which started publishing in the Civil War era, would not last long into the new millennium, who would have believed you? Now, it has become the first major city daily to scrap its print edition and go exclusively online. Sadly, it won’t be the last. And this realization comes as a surprise to nobody.

 

The death of newspapers is not a matter of “if” anymore, it’s a matter of “when.” Thus far, the overriding concern is the diminishing resources for investigative reporting, and how that will effect a democracy wholly dependent on information, like the United States.

 

Of less concern is the digital age’s effect on how future generations will view us. It’s called history. We take it for granted all the time. But, since the first Gutenberg press rolled out in the 15th century, almost all of our historical accounts have been patched together by published works.  

 

The conversion to digital threatens this in a strange way. For as digital makes it easier to save information, it also makes it easier to lose information.

 

*

 

“The only way to guarantee the preservation of important information is to print it on acid-free paper.”

 

These are the words of Charles Faulhaber, Director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California. The Bancroft is an international leader in the field of digital archiving. Go to the Bancroft website and with a click of a mouse you can be instantly transported to worlds once nearly impossible to penetrate.  

 

Among the collections online at the Bancroft is the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, where you can view original Egyptian papyrus unearthed from the tombs of crocodile mummies. The papyri dates back to the end of the 2nd century B.C. That’s quite an endorsement for paper archiving.

 

These days, there is no need to bury information in tombs. We have computer chips and USB drives, all of which Faulhaber hardily supports. “We are committed to digitizing because that’s what the people want.” Speaking of preserving primary sources—the manna of historical research—Faulhaber is just as bullish. 

 

“The world wide web changed everything,” he says. “When you digitize primary sources, anyone in the world can see them.”

 

Faulhaber was convinced of the benefits of the digital age when, working for the Hispanic Society of America in the ’70s, he discovered the joys of revising transcriptions using a sleek computer keypad to cut and paste instead of re-typing the entire text on a cumbersome typewriter.  

 

Yet, Faulhaber is quick to point out the quirks in the digital system. 

 

“The problem is that technology keeps changing.”  

 

Faulhaber tells a story of the Computerization Project of the Archivo General De Indias in Seville, Spain. The archive contains documents associated with the colonization of the Americas. The Spanish government wanted to make them accessible in time for the Seville World’s Fair in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ journeys.

 

“There were about 10 million documents,” says Faulhaber. “They worked two shifts of flatbed scanners every day for three years, converting everything to IBM optical disks.”

 

The conversion was successful. The problem now? According to Faulhaber, it’s that IBM no longer makes the machines to view the disks. The disks are completely obsolete, useless in their present form and the data has to be re-converted to CD-ROM or DVD or whatever current format is compatible.  

 

Fortunately, no colonial documents were harmed in the conversion. But it’s a lesson that amateur digitizers should not shrug off, even as Faulhaber dismisses the doomsday scenario described above. 

 

“2020 is too soon. Maybe in 100 years. I’ll bet you a large amount of money no software will survive 100 years.” 

 

*

 

The students of the Claremont Colleges perhaps have heard the horror stories from their parents of the days when researching school projects consisted of trudging to the local library, fumbling through a byzantine card catalog, and recording data meticulously on a series of 3×5 index cards.

 

These days, Claremont students don’t have to leave their dorm room. They just call up the Honnold/Mudd Library website and they have hundreds of databases and e-journals at their fingertips. Need the scoop on the migration of the Black-legged Kittiwake? Just link to the Birds of North America database. Beats the Dewey Decimal system every time.

 

Among the procurable databases is Anthrosource, made available by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Anthrosource is a digital portal that compiles a variety of anthropology journals once print-based and available only by subscription.  

 

What bad could come of easily accessible content provided by your university library for free?

 

Plenty, according to Dan Segal, Jean M. Pitzer Professor of Anthropology at Pitzer College. Segal also sits on the executive board of directors at the AAA.  

 

“This is a huge issue,” says Segal, who is worried that because of portals like Anthrosource, the task of submitting articles to the various journals will be jeopardized.  

 

“I am against Open Access,” explains Segal. “It’s decimated the market for individual subscribers.”

 

In short, it’s a revenue issue. Less money comes in from subscribers, which means less money to pay authors. No revenue—no newly produced works, unless the journals resort to charging anthropologists to publish. From Segal’s perspective, the unfettered Open Access to journals will eventually produce the ironic result of no journals to access.  

 

Likewise, Tom Hollihan, Professor of Communications at the USC Annenberg School, finds the digital age troubling, because electronic correspondence leaves behind no paper trail.

 

“No one writes letters anymore,” Hollihan laments. “Personal messages have dropped.”  

 

Letters and personal papers have traditionally provided a limitless supply of primary sources for historians. If a historical figure is especially voluminous, like President Abraham Lincoln, the biographies never seem to stop.  

 

“Oddly,” says Hollihan, “we seem to value the most recent historical scholarship. Very few disciplines would put up with that.”

 

Hollihan is a bit spooked by the prospect of increased media fragmentation. “The mainstream media is losing traction. More narrowly focused sources of media will change the way history is written.”

 

Even still, neither Segal or Hollihan seem overly concerned about lost material. Segal says that print archives are not immune from permanent destruction.

 

“Libraries have burned down,” points out Segal, “and digital archivists protect themselves with mirror sites.” Likewise, says Hollihan, “there are enough repositories that can save content.”

 

Indeed, with server space expanding and storage prices minuscule, preservation of information seems to have no ceiling. So how is it possible that we have already hit our limit?

 

*

 

David Farrell is a University Archivist for the Bancroft Library. He has been with Bancroft since it began converting to digital. A modest man, Farrell sees himself as more of a practitioner than an expert. But ask Farrell what the limits of digital archiving are, and he’ll give you the lowdown point by point.

 

“What gets digitized? There’s a bit of a debate about that,” says Farrell. “The theory is, let’s save everything by digitizing it. We’ll let future scholars make a decision” on what is worthy of research. 

 

But there are huge flaws in that logic. Too much useless information crowds out data that is absolutely necessary to keep. The internet is already home to millions of dead web sites and links that lead nowhere, cyber clutter that serves no purpose.

 

So even though one cent can buy you seemingly 12 billion gigabytes of space, with all of the information being generated, from digitally derived documents like NASA images to physical documents like photographs scanned onto a hard drive, what we have the capacity to preserve is being severely tested.

 

“There are very real-time costs involved” in digital archiving, says Farrell.   

 

First, you must secure a server. A server is essentially a stripped down computer with nothing but a processing chip, RAM space and a massive hard drive. Google has a server farm in Oregon the size of two football fields, filled with nothing but banks of computers.  

 

Servers must be constructed, maintained in a temperature controlled room, secure from both natural disasters and hackers, so that if one component goes down, it can be retrieved from another. All this costs money. So, in reality, our capacity to save, from an upkeep perspective, is not quite as vast as it seems. Someone has to pay for it.

 

The Bancroft digital archive receives funding from the UC system. The Library of Congress’ digital archive receives federal funding. But in this new era of slashed budgets and financial bailouts, will there be enough money available to keep the archive engines running?

 

Farrell doesn’t have that answer but he says, “if push comes to shove” he believes UC will continue to make digital archiving a priority.  

 

Farrell does not for a minute buy into the idea that all information could be wiped out in the blink of an eye, but does admit, “these issues are not solved.” Echoing Faulhaber’s concerns, Farrell says it is next to impossible to anticipate what technology will bring in the future.

 

With all this ambiguity bouncing around, doesn’t anyone think it would be simpler to just preserve data the old-fashioned way, in book form?  

 

*

 

Sven Birkerts is a writer, critic and essayist. He edits the literary journal AGNI based out of Boston University. He’s also the author of the very prescient book The Gutenberg Elegies, a collection of stories published in 1995 that bemoaned the cultural shift from the printed page to the computer screen and the repercussions. When the book came out, the internet had not yet permeated completely into the fabric of society. Birkerts’ musings now have the sagacious sheen of a visionary attached to them.  

 

“I think about that kind of stuff all the time,” Birkerts says in response to a theory that someday all digitally stored data could be wiped out. Not that Birkerts is all that apprehensive about the potential loss of history. Societies have proven quite adept at filling in the void.

 

Before the printing press allowed mass-produced works, “the idea of knowledge was the property of elites,” says Birkerts. Oral archiving was one way that tribes could pass down their history from generation to generation. Thus, memory was a vital asset.  

 

“Now we have everything written down. We have a large scale atrophy of an aptitude,” says Birkerts. This doesn’t seem like much, but in the digital age, our aptitude for preserving historical data is receding. Writing down thoughts gives way to tapping out a text message.

 

Birkerts remains a book guy and though his doomsday scenario—the death of books—has not come to pass, at least yet, he notes subtle alterations in comprehending them. 

 

“The way eyes move over print has changed dramatically.”  

 

Another dramatic change is Birkerts’ place in literature. He recently penned an online “dispatch” for the Atlantic titled “Resisting the Kindle,” in which he eloquently detailed his objections to the latest version of Amazon’s wireless book reader.

 

Cyberspace’s reaction was swift and not so sympathetic. A rebuttal “dispatch” was posted almost immediately and Birkerts himself seemed a bit abashed at the ferocity of the opposition. In the good old days of print publishing, criticism dripped slowly and articulately. Today, it can be an uncouth torrent.   

 

Welcome to the new world—the one you predicted—Mr. Birkerts!  

 

*

 

There is such a thing as an electromagnetic bomb. According to Wikipedia, E-bombs can “disable electronics with an electromagnetic pulse . . . to produce damaging current and voltage surges.” There are unconfirmed reports that the United States military has used E-bombs in both the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

 

Theoretically, this is the type of device that could conceivably wipe out digitally stored data, no matter how well preserved it is. At present, there is no capacity for E-bombs to wipe out every single shred of data on the planet.

 

But who knows? If we can find a way to carry out almost every function of our lives on a bite-sized mobile phone, with the promise of rapid and escalating technology fueling our dreams of a better society, who is to say that those whose mission is to somehow destroy the modern world as we know it are not developing some kind of sinister and unequivocal counterpoint?  

 

The digital age makes researching and communication as easy as a click of a mouse. It’s simple and convenient—and easy to lose. Let’s not let our history go the way of the dinosaur.

 

Let’s have a back-up plan.


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