Monday, April 27, 2015

We are losing our past

When I write what I think, in letters for example, I don’t use pen and paper anymore. My paper correspondence, which used to be very intensive, has stopped and has become digital. What I think about the world is now written in e-mails, in Facebook posts and 140 character tweets that anybody in the world can read. Times have changed radically.

One aspect of this change worries me: will all this information about who we are survive? My impression is that we trust that somehow all information will remain available on the internet or on some digital server somewhere on the planet. We trust that Facebook stores all the posts that ignited the Arab Spring so that we can later analyze them to understand how it happened. We spontaneously presume that links to articles, videos or other contents will stay valid for another year or even forever. The risk that total amnesia will hit us soon is simply not on our radar.

What amnesia are we talking about? For example: in twenty years we might no longer know what internet and websites looked like today or twenty years ago. We might lose the ideas we shared with friends in letters some years ago because we don’t print e-mails anymore. I’m worried about my musical memory too because when my old cassette recorder dies, all audio cassettes on which I compiled my favorite songs will technically die too. The letters I kept in boxes and also the 2000 year old Mesopotamian clay tablets will still be readable tomorrow. But the digital information that became our modern world - our documentary heritage of tomorrow – may not.

Effective and sentimental preservation solution: one of the boxes in my home containing correspondance from when I was a student.

This risk of "digital amnesia" might not frighten you as much as the terrible idea of losing your physical family pictures in a house fire. But the effect is quite comparable: we will lose access to our past during our lifetime if we don’t act. The 22nd century will not know that the 21st century existed if we don't do something. Of course, there will always be a digital storage solution for our personal pictures and e-mails. But for how long will we have the right (super old and completely obsolete) software to look at them? 

Today's tweets and Word documents are tomorrows history books. So we need to look better after them. Example: nobody feels responsible – or gets paid – for the archiving of social media. And nobody gets paid either for making old computers and old software work. So what do we do if we find a box full of floppy discs with no computer and software capable of swallowing and reading them?

And besides the technical aspect of how we preserve our digital present, we also need to think about what we want to keep. That’s another risk we face: we are so overwhelmed by the flow of information that we don’t even know where to start the selection process.

It makes me think of climate change, a change so slow that we don’t take it seriously enough. But at least we talk about climate change! There’s even a world summit for climate change that is organized every year in front of the whole international community. I think we need a debate about global amnesia too.

Fortunately, the Dutch National Commission for UNESCO is taking action. Because even if we start printing all our personal pictures and e-mails today, this won’t safeguard the story of what society is thinking and tweeting today. Printing cannot be the solution as nobody will ever be able to print the Pacman or Donkey Kong experience, let alone Stairway to heaven. 

Vincent Wintermans (right) of the Dutch National UNESCO Commission started the UNESCO PERSIST project which aims to keep documentary heritage accessible.

Twitter: @Oosterenvan