How will our descendants in the very distant future view us, assuming they exist? Will they have a better understanding of us than we do of, say, the Romans? Or will differential preservation lead them to think we lived in a mad world full of glazed china figurine shrines, toilet bowls as status symbols, and the ritual deposition of jewellery in sinks?
These questions are to some extent the realm of science fiction, but by applying what we know from current historiography and archaeological theory, we might hypothesise what clues to modern day cultures will survive into the near and distant future.
It is a popular idea that we shouldn’t look too far ahead. Brandon Carter’s Doomsday argument predicts the end of humanity in less than 10,000 years’ time, based on probabilistic projections of population figures; others believe we won’t last 1,000. What interests me most about such predictions of doom is that we have been making them for millennia (early Christianity, for example, was largely built upon the idea that the end of the world was imminent).
I’m not saying we should ignore current population growth or our responsibilities towards other life on the planet, but there seems to be a long tradition of certain innate feelings among human groups that we are at the end time, and that this is somehow our own fault. Others are more optimistic: a recent paper published in New Scientist (#mce_temp_url#) summarises research suggesting we will still be thriving in not merely 10,000, but 100,000 years.
A digital history?
Assuming our basic and intellectual survival, a key factor in all of this is whether you believe in the longevity of digital media. Will future generations end up sifting through ‘trash heaps’ of digitally stored data, overwhelmed by the volume of evidence available? Or will we be trying to reconstruct the vast and forgotten world that was once so rashly committed to memory in digital format only? In the next 50 to 100 years the former problem seems more likely, but even if a fair proportion of the digital record survives into the more distant future, it may not reflect us in a way we would like, or even expect.
In the first place, historical data needs to be reproduced if it is to survive. This is no less true of modern records than it was of the Greek and Latin texts preserved for Europe by Muslim scholars, or the fastidious copying of medieval manuscripts by monks.
Even among some of the earliest texts known to us from ancient Mesopotamia, many that survive are copies used by scribes to practice their handwriting. Marc Weber of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, is quoted as saying, ‘digital records are more like an oral tradition than traditional documents … if you don’t copy them regularly enough, they simply disappear’ (#mce_temp_url#). The thing is that much of the information currently being stored and reproduced will be useless in a few years’ time when it is no longer relevant for the generation of advertising revenue. And expecting companies which currently sit on a lot of data (Google, Facebook, Yahoo) to persist, well, indefinitely seems hopeful at best.
“As we make photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, errors creep in and multiply. The same is also true, of course, of historical methods of reproducing human history and literature. “
In one sense, however, digital reproduction has an edge over more traditional methods. The hazards of reproduction are best documented in biology. For example, it seems that cloned mammals die younger because their DNA is not ‘new’, and aging is irreversible for the same reason; the commonly used analogy is that of continually photocopying a document. As we make photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, errors creep in and multiply.
The same is also true, of course, of historical methods of reproducing human history and literature. The marvelous thing about digital reproduction is that it is, in principle, infallible. Surely it is more difficult to corrupt information that essentially boils down to a series of 1s and 0s? Well, perhaps not, argues blogger Claire L. Evans with reference to art (#mce_temp_url#), but it is certainly an improvement on the clarity, if not the quantity of preservation.
The element of choice
So, what is likely to survive from our vast digital databanks in the long term? Unsurprisingly, the majority of the most visited global websites from 2011-12, as ranked by alexa.com , are search engines and shopping or social networking sites. Much of the data stored in these will cease to become relevant or useful in a relatively short space of time, and may well disappear as a consequence. It is thus interesting that Wikipedia is listed at number 6. As the Wikimedia foundation is a non-profit organisation, it does not need to store vast amounts of data for advertising purposes, and can thus concentrate on maintaining its pages alone.
Perhaps most importantly, because not just the current version, but the entire history of its articles is available for download by individual users, it is likely that a large amount of information from the site will be preserved long enough for its historical value to become appreciated. If the idea of being judged in the future by open-access, publicly generated content worries you, consider this: for a contemporary Athenian it would have been equally unimaginable that the plays of Aristophanes – lewd, crude and bawdy – would have become the sole survivors of early Greek comedy.
“The ancient Egyptians knew what they were doing when they inscribed records in solid stone.”
The point is that most of what survives will not be determined by conscious decisions on our part. This may not be for want of trying, as shown by the current popularity of time capsules. The most impressive of these must be the KEO satellite, due to be launched in 2014 and to return to Earth 50,000 years later. The satellite’s contents are to include samples of air, sea, earth, water, and human blood along with a digital archive of current knowledge and personal messages from members of the public (to submit your own message, visit keo.org). We have no way of knowing what future generations will make of this, should it succeed. But perhaps that doesn’t matter.
The ancient Egyptians knew what they were doing when they inscribed records in solid stone. Theirs was a culture that prized longevity and durability, and they have certainly been granted that. It’s just that being displayed in museums for the amusement of the general public wasn’t quite what they had in mind. The record we leave for future generations may be written by us, but it will belong to them.