Earlier this year, there was a lot of discussion about a warning popularized by Vinton Cerf that modern digital storage systems are incapable of very long term storage. Media used to save digital data will degrade after just a few decades. In addition, the once cheap technology needed to read that media has become obsolete and thus prohibitively expensive to use today.
A few decades ago we embraced the notion of paperless archival, in part motivated by green concerns for environmental costs of producing paper and to save the forests. Later the motivation was that it became far more efficient to handle electronic records rather than paper ones. The result is that modern information, including photographs, never get transcribed to analog material forms such as paper printouts. Even when we do, the modern inks we use for printing are not as durable as the older ink on paper.
The consequence is that records of modern life will soon disappear forever. Centuries from now, historians may know more about the 19th century than the late 20th and early 21st. The problem is unlikely to be solved because of the rapidly increasing volume of data requires ever denser data storage that I assume will degrade even faster.
The most durable records of the past were the least dense. For example, the huge Egyptian Pyramids from the early kingdoms is lasting proof of an existence of a very prosperous civilization at a very early time. The engraved hieroglyphics also are low density with hand-sized characters and wall sized scripts. They survived for thousands of years.
In contrast, most of modern records will disappear before the date of the author’s death. Certainly, this blog will be in that category.
To me, this news of the non-durability of modern digital storage is not new. I recall hearing of the problem even decades ago. Back then, I recall one of the reasons for demanding paper records despite digital storage was to have reliably long term storage. Lately we have given up on this goal because there is too much data to put on paper. Also all of our tools for reading data are electronic in nature so that we have to digitize paper data back to electronic form. Despite advancements in technology, the optical character reader technology is still very unreliable. It is easier for managing records that always reside in digital storage media.
I am also not alarmed by the prospect of losing old data. In recent posts, I have been writing about data-driven decision making and government by data and urgency (that I call dedomenocracy). Although I approached the topic with an intention to discredit the concept, my posts give the impression of advocating for this type of government. A characteristic of this government is its valuing of more recent information over more distant past information. My vision of a government by data is a government that concentrates on only the present. This government has little use for old data or even of acknowledging lasting Truth. With sufficient data volume from sufficient number and diversity of sources, present observations should be able to discover the relevant truths from present observations.
A government so focused on the present has no need for long past data. It is very expensive to preserve data for more than a few decades (or even as short as a few hours). It is hard to justify that expense if we have no use for the old data. I am not alarmed that our records will disappear faster than the records that our ancestors left. With big data technologies, historic data quickly loses relevance. This may be a good thing. We can have more opportunities to tackle future challenges if we forget past events that can cause grievances or demands for justice. Losing the records that remind us of old grievances can be beneficial for a government that focuses on the present.
This conclusion suggests that we would benefit from losing records of even more distant past. These pre-digital era records are more durable against natural degradation. To lose these records, we would need to make the additional effort to destroy them. Coincidentally, for the past couple centuries we have been doing exactly that.
Our pursuit of science has motivated an exhaustive search and recovery of ancient artifacts. Sciences such as archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology have sought to unearth all of the physical evidence of the past. The discovery and recovery of this evidence is inherently destructive. Extracting the evidence involves separating it from its surroundings that can provide clues temporal relationships with other artifacts or natural evidence. We go further by relocating the evidence to museums or laboratories where they are subject to deliberate degradation (destructive testing or reconstruction using modern materials) and natural degradation of exposure to light, humidity, modern corrosive pollution, and organic intrusion (bacteria, fungi, mold, etc). Even the onsite excavations are now exposed to the sun and weather when they were previously protected under dirt or debris.
In early years many collections were relocated in distant museums and collections that had good funding to preserve the discovered objections. Later, there was a demand to return these articles to the countries where they were discovered. The lower stability and wealth of these countries have left many of these articles even more vulnerable to degradation and loss.
Although it applies to all of these historic sciences, I first heard the following complaint in context of archaeology. Scientists recognize that the archaeological record is a non-renewable resource. Extracting that record can only occur once. Recovery itself destroys evidence. This complaint originated from later regrets of very sloppy and hasty excavations from early archaeologists (treasure hunters). As later practices and tools became more sophisticated, the later scientists regretted the now destroyed sites of earlier archaeology. There was much more we could have learned if only we had waited for the technology and proceeded more slowly.
For this reason, many known archaeological sites are now governed carefully by demanding good justification for further investigation. There is even the deliberate preservation of a site against modern investigation in order to preserve it for future generations of scientists who may have even more advanced tools and practices, or may have new questions that we have not yet imagined. The new questions may come from new theories derived from other evidence. To test these new questions, the future scientists will need a pristine place to explore for evidence. We invest in preserving the sites for these future investigators.
Despite these modern restraints, we have already unearthed a large part of the historical record of human civilization and both human and natural evolution. The evidence has been moved to museums and laboratories and the sites have been presented as tourist sites.
Even with well run museums and laboratories, we learn too late of ways that nature can degrade the evidence by exposure to light, pollutants, moisture, and human handling. Over time, many of these houses have become more impoverished and less well maintained. The evidence is degrading even faster.
Similarly the tourist attractions also damage the site with the need for manual cleaning of the site, and the accumulation of inevitable minor vandalism.
The modern consumption of even ancient evidence has the effect of giving ancient artifacts a similar fate as digital data. Modern scrutiny of even the ancient information storage media is shortening the life of that media. Ancient evidence that manged to survive so long to reach modern life is disappearing at a rate that is comparable to loss of of digital data.
The warned loss of digital memory is part of a larger project of losing all memory. This is a bigger trend than just an technological accident of digital media have short lifespans. Humanity is on a quest to obliterate history.
We are experiencing an end of history. Unlike the essay of that title from the 1990s that proposed that the development of democracy has finally reached the ultimate good in terms of social/political development, I am referring to a period where we methodically erase all evidence of the past. Perhaps by the end of the century there will be no evidence there was any history that existed before this century (that last remaining evidence may be the junk we left behind on the moon). Even if the remainder of the century is generally peaceful, the evidence of the past will be destroyed or replaced with modern replicates that lose the connection with the actual past.
This disregard for preservation of history may correspond to the emergence of a dedomenocracy. In its final form, a dedomenocracy’s population will only comprehend the present. Once that happens, there will be no interest in the past, or at least not to the level that will merit public investment to preserve its evidence.
I mentioned the greater importance for the population to learn data science skills than to learn other knowledge. Data science is primarily about the examination of the present. Perhaps the eventual culture will lose any concept that there were past civilizations that governed by other means instead of by data.
At the same time, in recent years we have been experiencing the deliberate destruction of ancient sites and artifacts and texts from ancient civilizations. The perpetrators of these violent acts claim that religious justification such as prohibitions of idolatry (of images no one today worships) and of other perceived religious violations. When it occurs, the destruction is very thorough, and the trend seems to be accelerating. Many more sites and museums will be vandalized or even entirely destroyed in coming years.
Although this is due to political instability in the area of the world that has many ancient sites, it fits with the above mentioned trends of destruction of past evidence that was already occurring. Even without upheavals, the museums housing ancient artifacts are gradually degrading through lack of funding for proper storage to prevent natural deterioration of the collections. Tourism to sites are wearing down the sites with foot traffic, periodic cleaning, and inevitable minor abuses (such as breaking off a souvenir or leaving some mark to show one was there). The upheavals are accelerating the destructive processes already happening.
Within a few decades all of the ancient evidence will disappear or at least lose any credibility as evidence of a past history. We will be left with modern replicates that will be indistinguishable from works of artist fantasies.
Perhaps we will not notice the loss of history. Already in our current democracy we value the present far more than the past. Our economy is focused on living life in the present with instant gratification where the motto is to live today to the fullest, as if there will be no tomorrow. Such a life does not really have much of a past.
Democracy is not the end of history but instead is a last intermediate stage to an ultimate authoritarian state governed by data and urgency: a dedomenocracy state. In that state, there will be only the present. The past does not matter even for making governing decisions. All decisions are made from the most recent observations using sufficiently extensive observations and statistical algorithms to derive any natural laws that may apply to the decisions.
Dedomenocracy has no need for history. Once it is in place, there is no priority to preserve history. At the same time, any remembrance of history may undermine the social stability of the authoritarian dedomenocracy state. Perhaps the current trends of obliteration of historical evidence is preparing the civilization for accept a dedomenocracy where all attention is on the present. When we achieve a full dedomenocracy, we will recognize it as having been the human condition forever. The past will cease to exist.