Records, Everywhere, But Not A Tool To Read

Looking at Google from the 27th century.

I

56-year-old Mrs. B., a mother of three young adults, never leaves her home without her iPhone. She’s one among a population of a little over a billion who have a presence on Facebook.

I ran into her some years ago.

She has an e-mail account as well. Who doesn’t, these days? She receives a moderate pile of missives daily, from superiors, underlings, friends, family, even from people she knows only I.V.L.

Not a terribly prolific correspondent by nature, she does, however, attend to her professional communication in a timely manner, perhaps because she’s obligated to. But she doesn’t cast the rest of the notes away either. Most of her interlocutors hear back from her the same day, even if the responses are clipped, usually under a dozen words.

Lest she bore others or she herself, is easily bored, she changes her Facebook avatar every few days, with an unfailing regularity.

When the tedium of work creeps in, to awaken the mind, she logs on to Facebook by way of her iPad, and uploads a handful of photographs—of her lunch; her puppy; her outings; the odd bank of snow on the sidewalk—for the voyeuristic pleasure of her social set.

In her embrace of the technological staples of the present day, she is on par with the average Internet subscriber. Oddly, she takes pride in calling herself a Luddite.

It’s a humblebrag, really—a self-deprecating way of announcing that she’s not like most women of her background, most of whom, she, I presume, assumes to be holed up in pre-Internet caves.

But she insists that when she chooses to describe herself as such, what she means is that she doesn’t understand modern technology in the least bit; that it flummoxes her; plays tricks with her mind.

II

It’s the year, 2254 A.D. Facebook has lost its face, consigned to the dustbin of 21st history. Twitter has long stopped chirping. Driverless cars are zipping about the streets. Computers have become ambient.

A descendant of Mrs. B., a fledgling technological archeologist, wishes to put together a family album of his ancestors. He goes into a sun-roofed attic, and rummages in a battered wooden chest. There, amid the detritus of a bygone era, he stumbles upon a rectangular silver slab. It opens to reveal a blank screen. The device, now obsolete for ages, is a repository of all of Mrs. B.’s life.

Sadly, he can’t know any of it.

III

We’re exhorted to go paperless. To enthusiastically jot down our every silly and serious thought in bits; to record our every memory in “pixels;” to store our books in the “cloud.” That way, no moths will ever bite into them, and the passage of time will not wither them.

But we could be very wrong, Vinton Cerf, vice president of Google, has warned.

The march of technology has a strange side-effect, one that won’t be apparent to us immediately, but will, to future generations. In our craze to bestow permanence on the objects we prize, ironically, we’re setting them up for obsolescence.

Those of a certain vintage will remember the floppy disk, which, when first commercially launched by I.B.M., in 1971, were eight inches in diameter. Later iterations shrank to 5¼ inches and 3½ inches.

As mementos from your teen years, along with a cassette-tape of ABBA’s “Super Trouper”— an album the Swedish group released in 1980—maybe you kept a few of those thin, flexible, square plates as well in a box in a basement. But where will you procure the hardware needed to run them? Today’s home computers don’t come with floppy disk drives.

But somehow, you do manage to track one down. And then it strikes you that the software needed to access the files in them has become as rare as a clock face with a radium dial. The story you wrote as a kid is written in WordStar, a word-processor application that had its run till the mid-1980s.

As time goes by, the tools required to retrieve what we’re documenting now will no longer be readily available to those who come after us. This blight will afflict all manner of digital artifacts: texts, photos, video, and audio.

The cultural notes of this period will slowly disappear into a deep abyss, and will be irretrievably lost to posterity. A historian of the 27th century will have an easier time piecing together the popularity of Tupperware in the mid-20th century than the nitty-gritty of Instagram.

Traces of our Twitter rants, our SoundCloud recordings, our JPEGs, our GIFs, would’ve been buried under the binary sands of 0 and 1. Our epoch will plunge into a darkness, not unlike the one that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, an age about which little is known because it has left behind so few written records.

We could be standing at the precipice of a “Digital Dark Age.”

The moral of the story is that if a photograph is memorable enough, take it to a Wal-Mart laboratory to get a hard copy of it. If you have a manuscript that you’d like your grandkid to take to a publisher, take a printout of it on an A4 size paper, and square it away in a binder.

A Mead notebook is a fine place for a secret diary. A person will have a far brighter chance of reading your private scribbles there than in a folder in your hard drive—because all the technology he or she will need to read it is a pair of eyes.

Think. It’s only because our Paleolithic men and women had etched their paintings on rocks that they’ve survived some 17,000 years after they were created in the caves of Lascaux, in France.

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