In our Digital Future, Will We lose our History?

Image by Akela999 from Pixabay

Chances are that when you hear or see the word anthropologist, you have a vision of some bedraggled man or woman hanging out in a remote village in some tropical part of the world. There are those anthropologists. Then there’s paleoanthropology, which studies fossil homonids. Then there’s cultural anthropologists like myself, many of whom focus on modern cultures. I focus on culture in our digital society and how we engage with technology. One concern I have these days, as do many others, is how we’ll be able to understand the human cultures of today in the distant future.

We may very well end up with a distinct gap in the ability to understand key cultural aspects and characteristics of our current time and perhaps into the next decade or two. Why should we be concerned about that?

As we put ever more of our lives into the Cloud and on storage devices like external drives, tablets and smartphones, we place bits and pieces of our culture there as well. Music, art, literature, maps, podcasts, videos, photos. These are all artefacts of our culture.

But the formats that we have for storage today are very different from a decade ago. As work is always going on to improve processing speed on chips, the same is happening with storage. You can buy a 2 Tb thumb drive for $23 on Amazon today. You can also lose that thumb drive in an instant. Think of the guy that lost his hard drive in the garbage and searched for it in the trash yard. He claims it had nearly $500M worth of Bitcoin. Or the fellow who forgot his password on an external drive for his Bitcoin. This potential loss of culture comes down to one issue.

Quite simply, it comes down to this; storage technology. Do you have any 5" floppy disks hanging around? The other day I found a 250Gb external hard drive I used to backup an old MacBook pro from 15 years ago. I tried to access it through an old iMac from 2010 that now serves as a media server in my home. Couldn’t get anything out of it. Incompatibility. I know, with some work, it could be accessed.

The problem with storage is that it is changing all the time and with every significant change, some data is always lost. Sometimes the personal cost of moving it into a new format, if possible, is just too high. And if you think that keeping it all in the Cloud is the answer, it isn’t. If a major solar flare wiped out Amazon, Apple and Facebook and other data centres, all would be lost. Or some other disaster. Or the company is acquired and they toss out the old stuff. Our digital culture and much of the clues about today’s cultures would be lost.

It is the small bits and pieces of a culture, the daily desiderata that we barely think about, that often deliver the greatest clues and insights to archeologists and anthropologists studying past cultures. How an old clay pot is made, the materials used and any embellishments tell us about a culture. How food was prepared, types of food, how creative that culture was. The lay out of buildings can tell us if it was a place lead by a king or queen or was more communal. But is it that important you might ask?

It is. For a number of reasons. Studying humanity’s past helps us navigate today and prepare for the future. Through archeology and anthropology, we’ve been able to understand different political systems and methods of governance in the past which have informed how we govern our societies today. I recently wrote about how the ancient khipu of Andean cultures may have informed or been an early version of what we envision blockchain doing for society. For cultures that suffered at the brutal hands of colonial Western Europe, it is anthropologists and archeologists which help indigenous cultures find their way back to revitalizing some of what was lost.

We may in the distant future, seek to understand at what point and how Artificial Intelligence came to dominate in our societies and how it affected our cultures. We may want to know how we let social media run amok and what impact, good and bad, it had on cultures around the world. Culture is the knowledge we use to navigate our life and world.

There are advances being made in storage technologies, yet interestingly, tape drives from the 1970’s are still considered a default backup! Some are looking at 5D storage using lasers to etch data into silicon glass cubes. The University of Manchester is looking at using super cold storage with information contained in molecules! Some scientists are considering using DNA as a storage mechanism.

So the question then becomes, how we do we ensure our digital lives and desiderata are preserved as much as possible? How do they get copied into new storage formats? Preserving our now for the future is critical for cultural understanding and navigating our world in the future.

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