Friday, November 27, 2009

History Will Be Written By Nobody

The historical record is the most important object that civilization probably creates. It's not a discreet product or manufactured building or monument that is pre-ordained, pre-determined, or pre-meditated.

It's not a cultural mandate or steered agenda. It's not controlled and it's not finished. The historical record is made up of millions of memos and emails, hundreds of thousands of news stories and video feeds. Documents and bank statements and journal entries and tape recordings. Photographs. Paintings and graffiti and poems and testimony.

Evidence. It's authentic and it's honest and it's made for reasons other than historical reasons, which is why it is so valuable. It's not worried about how it will look 100 years from now; it's worried about now. It all survives as a cumulative and infinite monument to who we were and what we cared about so that the culture of the future will understand how we lived, why we lived, what we were trying to discover about the world and about ourselves.

The most important primary resources of the 19th century frontier life were the hand-written letters that were saved by the pioneers. It was a big deal to get a letter in the old days, and endless minutia were relayed in those pages, which still exist today for historians to discover how things were in the summer of (18)49, how much bread costs, where the roads were being laid down by who's property, who sired what children.

This everyday discourse isn't written down with pen and paper anymore. It's hiding in emails, Facebook news feeds, or Twitter. Its sheer amount - and the perception that it's all so very unimportant noise - precludes anyone from wanting to save it, or being able to, certainly not the people who first created it. Facebook isn't archiving their site... except to mine your data to place ads. While someone' s grandfather may still be printing out all their emails, no one I can imagine is printing out all their friends' status updates.

You won't be able to pull your tweets out of a shoebox under the bed in 100 years like you could a box of letters. The vast amount of social interactions are now taking place between those iPhone IMs and Google docs and whole new generations of us will never commit our diaries, business contracts, family photos, geneology, or bank transactions to anything other than the cloud, up there on someone else's server, where no one's saving it for the sake of its historical value.

Only for its financial exploitation.

We all have stories of that hard drive that crashed last year and lost the pictures of our trip to Disney World or our Aunt Lora, who's dead now and we'll never see what she looked like the last 10 years of her life.

We're likely living in a digital dark ages, right now, and in 100 years we won't be able to know who our friends were, what we said to each other, what roads we travelled next to what properties, how much we made or who sired our children. All, uncommitted to long-term storage and without true historical custodians, will be lost, along, I'm sure, with this post.

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