The rapid fading of information


In Robert Heinlein’s uneven late work Friday the mentor of the protagonist mentions that because of a possible collapse of technological civilization he maintains a collection of paper books.

This crossed my mind when I saw that Storify is shutting down. Or Kevin Drum’s reflections on the changes in blogging.

I’ve put a lot of content out there over the years. Probably on the order of 5 million words across my blogs. Some publications here and there. Lots of tweets. But very little of it will persist into future generations. Digital is evanescent.

But so is paper. I believe that even good hardcover books probably won’t last more than a few hundred years.

Perhaps we should go back to some form of cuneiform? Stone and metal will last thousands of years.

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12 thoughts on “The rapid fading of information

  1. I wrote of my great love of paper books before in comments. There is a certain tactile sense and the accompanying (satisfying) emotion that books generate that are missing in digital books.

    So I maintain a sizable personal library of military history books that my children and grandchildren will inherit one day. It is a form of tangible property that digital media are not. And I hope that one day after my body died, my grandchildren will read my books and remember me fondly… especially after they see my messages to them on the books.

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  2. I am wondering now about the information that those from the era of cuneiform let pass into oblivion and what, for those few who could write, was not important enough to write down.

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  3. That’s going to make for some very interesting history writing. Vast swathes of personal accounts and insight into how people lived now might be unavailable to future historians because Facebook fell out of popularity in (say) the 2030s and nobody bothered to pay the server costs to save their stored information (or convert it to a more permanent medium). But we’ll have mountains of data, reports, and literature that will get migrated over and over again.

    Perhaps we should go back to some form of cuneiform? Stone and metal will last thousands of years.

    Bronze and Cuneiform. Bronze plates would be pretty durable once they’ve got the oxide layer on them – there’s a 4500 year old Bronze artifact I’ve seen a picture of that looks amazing. And of course fired-clay tablets can last an extremely long time.

    And of course if you want to spend real money, gold or gold-plated copper would be good too.

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  4. The notion of having a core compendium of human knowledge in easily accessible durable form is a good one, and an inexpensive way to hedge against the worst case scenarios (although my wife has decreed that my personal library should not be developed with that purpose in mind). With $100 million, you could make a huge difference in how likely it is the society rebounds from a trauma that degrades our ability to pass on knowledge to future generations. (Query if the course of human culture and technology would have change notably if some of the great libraries that were destroyed like Alexandrea had been preserve instead.)

    Even paper copies could make a huge difference. Yes, they only last a few hundred years (although paper and ink choices and storage conditions can influence this), but the events that would destroy electronic copies and the events that destroy paper copies are not the same. And, as long as electronic copies are around, simply reprinting the paper versions works.

    Embossing key material on a non-oxidizing metal would be better, and is still worth the effort for a few hundred strategically placed copies of what would basically amount to Asimov’s Foundation of librarians.

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  5. “And I hope that one day after my body died, my grandchildren will read my books and remember me fondly… especially after they see my messages to them on the books.”

    I have discussed these things with my children. They assure me that everything will be on it way to Goodwill before the leftovers from the funeral meal are eaten.

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  6. This problem — the evanescence of information — has attracted attention elsewhere. I present the efforts of the Long Now Foundation:

    “The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996* to develop the Clock and Library projects, as well as to become the seed of a very long-term cultural institution. The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common. We hope to foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”
    http://longnow.org/about/

    “We are building a 10,000 Year Clock. It’s a special Clock, designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking. It’s of monumental scale inside a mountain in West Texas. The father of the Clock is Danny Hillis. He’s been thinking about and working on the Clock since 1989. He wanted to build a Clock that ticks once a year, where the century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. The vision was, and still is, to build a Clock that will keep time for the next 10,000 years.”
    http://www.10000yearclock.net/learnmore.html

    “The Rosetta Project is The Long Now Foundation’s first exploration into very long-term archiving. It serves as a means to focus attention on the problem of digital obsolescence, and ways we might address that problem through creative archival storage methods.

    “Our first prototype of a very long-term archive is The Rosetta Disk – a three inch diameter nickel disk with nearly 14,000 pages of information microscopically etched onto its surface. Since each page is an image, rather than a digital encoding of 1’s and 0’s, it can be read by the human eye using 500 power optical magnification. The disk rests in a sphere made of stainless steel and glass which allows the disk exposure to the atmosphere, but protects it from casual impact and abrasion. With minimal care, it could easily last and be legible for thousands of years.”
    http://rosettaproject.org/about/

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  7. I remember the geologist Steve Dutch had an interesting essay on how to make really durable records of information which later people could access even if civilization fell apart, but in keeping with his take on the ephemeral nature of computer storage, I can no longer find it.

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  8. I have discussed these things with my children. They assure me that everything will be on it way to Goodwill before the leftovers from the funeral meal are eaten.

    I can’t predict the future, but my children are pretty sentimental and show a great deal of attachment to their parents and to each other. Then again, they are still mostly young and spend A LOT of time as a family (they are homeschooled for one thing). They also spend a good chunk of their day in our home library (second biggest room in the house after the main hall). I doubt they will give away my books. But who knows about the grand kids who are yet to exist.

    But, I am hoping my kids will maintain with their own families the same cultural sense of historical chain in the link that I have inculcated in them. It is further reinforced by the Burkean conservatism (society as a contract between the dead, the living, and those to be born) I imprinted in them as well as the Catholic idea of the communion of saints.

    In any case, I hope my eldest son will at least keep (and add to and pass down) the family genealogy book that has been in my family for generations from the old country.

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  9. If you are looking for a useful metal for recording items on for the long term, may I suggest tumbaga? Tumbaga is a copper/gold alloy that, with correct treatment, allows a thin surface layer of gold to sit on top of a mostly copper piece of metal. It is lighter than gold, malleable, and has a lower melting point than either gold or copper alone and it is cheaper than using gold alone while retaining gold’s lack of corrosion.

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