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Posterity, or, Why I decided not to bury that time capsule after all

May 2, 2011

I’ve been reading a lot of James Gleick recently. For those of you unfamiliar with Gleick, he’s a fantastic science and technology writer, best known for his biographies of key figures in the history of science and mathematics (Feynman, Newton).

I recently finished What Just Happened, a collection of his technology essays written from 1991 – 2001. He covers a wide range of subjects, from WinWord user groups to the future of money in the digital age and the quality of early-90s internet porn. It’s not only a real page-turner, but an amazing time capsule from the earliest days of the Internet.

I’m going to review the book later this week, so I won’t say more in that vein here. But I came across a passage that really got me thinking about the role information plays in human culture, both for how we understand ourselves and contemporary society as well as our historical ancestors and their culture. It’s long, but worth reading in full to set the stage for this post (which is even longer).

Who, if anyone, will decide what parts of our culture are worth preserving for the hypothetical archaeologists of the future? Can any identification scheme help readers distinguish true copies from false copies in the online world’s hall of mirrors? What arrays of optical or magnetic disks might provide reliability and redundancy for more than a few years of storage? Still, hope comes from the simple truth that the essence of information does not lie in any technology, new or old. It’s just bits, after all.

In the world before cyberspace, countless bridge hands were played and words spoken and memory vanished like vapor into the air. Think of all that data, dissolving no sooner than it was formed. Once in a while people managed to snatch a bit back from the ether, with pen or paper or, later, audio- and videotape. They succeeded in saving for posterity a fair portion of what was worth saving: the speeches of Lincoln (the major ones), the poetry of Shakespeare (but not quite reliably), the plays of Sophocles (except the lost ones), and a few dozen terabytes more.

James Gleick, What Just Happened (pp. 200-201)

Although Gleick’s writing about our penchant to keep everything digital, he’s skirting around the edges of some concepts that are fundamental to how we think about history. I want to unpack the most interesting of these here in some detail, because I think they not only help us view Gleick’s ideas in a larger context, they help us see these historiographical concepts in a new light as well.
We don’t ever have everything

The first thing to realize is that everything from the past doesn’t (and cannot) survive—by default, the artifacts we have left to us are always a subset of the superset of everything that used to exist in that culture.

Seems simple enough, but this truism has profound consequences for historians, because the way you interpret an artifact and its context has everything to do with how well you understand its relation to the larger superset of things it once belonged to.

Context is everything

For example, 2000 years from now, when archaeologists comb through the remains of a twenty-first-century U.S. city like Arlington, Texas, they’ll find the remains of clothing indicating that the Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XLV. What’s more, they’ll likely find lots and lots of it—tens of thousands of examples, in fact. And they’ll probably also find them in other U.S. cities in similar numbers.

How are these future archaeologists to interpret their find? If they know nothing else of Super Bowl XLV, then they have a simple conclusion: the Steelers won it.

If, on the other hand, they’ve come across contemporary references to Super Bowl XLV, they’ll see that those references indicate that the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV—and what do they do with that? Do they believe a single reference over tens of thousands of physical artifacts that suggest something different?

For these hypothetical future archaeologists, getting the real meaning of their find right depends entirely on understanding the larger context of how we marketed sports merchandise in the twenty-first century, and whether those future archaeologists will know that is anyone’s guess.

Never talk about religion, politics, or sex

This may have seemed like a silly example, but it raises the same fundamental issues that a spectacular find like the Dead Sea Scrolls does. These texts, which seem to be written from a radical, non-mainstream Jewish point of view, were found in caves in the desert, with no definitive indication of how they got there. And how you chose to explain how they got there has profound implications on your understanding of Judaisms in the ancient world.

On the one hand, you can argue that a radical group of non-mainstream Jews living in the desert hid them there for posterity. Following this line of reasoning, the ideas in the texts represent a fringe element in the world of ancient Jews. This is the explanation most folks who study these things subscribe to.

On the other hand, you can argue that mainstream Jews, in advance of a Roman invasion of Jerusalem, grabbed whatever texts they could find from the Jerusalem library and took them out in the desert to hide them for posterity. Following this line of reasoning, the ideas in the texts represent mainstream Jewish points of view (or at least points of view tolerated by mainstream Judaisms).

Now, if you think BPM-ACM or SharePoint versus big ECM debates are hotly contested, you ain’t seen nothing yet! So I’ll leave the debate over the real context of the Dead Sea Scrolls to those who know more about this than I do (with a nod to Norman Golb’s pioneering work for those who are interested in digging deeper).

But no matter which side of the issue you ultimately come down on for the Dead Sea Scrolls (or Super Bowl XLV for that matter), you can see how absolutely critical context is to understanding the meaning of an artifact.

Wait, it gets worse

If that were all, historians could maybe sleep well at night. But the real problem is that the farther we are from the original provenance of an artifact, the less context we have. For example, the superset of “all things that exist in Chicago in 2011” gets smaller and smaller with each year that passes.

And even that might be surmountable if it weren’t for the fact that, 2000 years from now, when faced with our greatly reduced subset of all things that existed in Chicago in 2011, our hypothetical future archaeologists won’t be able to know with certainty how the original superset was reduced over the intervening 2000 years to reach the subset they have before them. That is:

  • Did it happen naturally, randomly, during the usual course of events?
  • Did people who lived after 2011 consciously save and destroy objects for some purpose?

The answer, of course, is that the superset of all things that existed in Chicago in 2011 was reduced in both of these ways over many occasions through many discreet events (e.g., fire, flood, negligence) and by many different groups of people with many different purposes for doing so.

Core samples, random samples, skewed samples

The fact that random and conscious forces acted on the superset of all things that existed in Chicago in 2011 to produce the subset they have before them should give our hypothetical future historians pause: how will they determine whether the subset of all things that existed in Chicago in 2011 they have before them represents a core sample, random sample, or skewed sample.

  • A subset that’s a core sample would contain elements from across all areas of the superset, maybe not in exact proportions, but fairly evenly and give a good representation of the cahracter of the original superset.
  • A subset that’s a random sample would contain elements from across the superset in proportions that are not representative or meaningful in any way—they are a scatter-shot collection drawn according to no particular logic from the original superset.
  • A subset that’s a skewed sample would contain elements from the superset that have been preserved out of proportion to their original distribution, whether by accident or by design.

I’ll dig deep into my previous life as a Historian of Christianity and Judaism for an example that speaks to this point.

The past is a mirror

Ancient Alexandria was a fantastic, cosmopolitan city perched on the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea, which, for many centuries, was ringed with lots of fantastic cosmopolitan cities. Greek was the primary language of Alexandria, and citizens from many cultural backgrounds lived there—including a thriving, vibrant Jewish community.

The Jewish texts we have access to today that have survived from ancient Alexandria are a subset of the superset of all texts that existed at the time there.

Centuries later, there was a thriving Christian community in Alexandria, also Greek speaking. And they left us texts that are a subset of the superset of all texts that existed during their time in Alexandria.

Here’s where things get interesting, because the Jewish texts from Alexandria seem like direct antecedents to the later Christian texts—so much so, that historians often talk about an Alexandrian school of thought that unites both Jewish and Christian thinkers across centuries.

But, if you’ve been reading this post carefully, you should be a bit skeptical about this claim. After all, drawing a direct line of influence and continuity across the centuries between these Jews and later Christians assumes a lot about the context of these texts…and just about all of it is missing.

There are no historical accidents

We could just as easily (and perhaps much more plausibly) assume that later Christians had to make decisions about which texts of their Jewish predecessors to save and which not to save—and faced with finite resources and the difficulty of copying texts in the ancient world, wouldn’t they have naturally preserved the texts that resonated with their views?

And if this is true, then what do we do with all the texts they didn’t choose to preserve, all the points of view, all the different ways of being Jewish that didn’t make the cut?

We can’t recover them—they are lost forever (or at least until someone finds them in a cave when excavating the foundation of a new shopping mall). But it does change how we view the Jewish texts that do survive, i.e., we won’t be so sure that they represent the only way (or even the most significant way) to be Jewish in ancient Alexandria because we don’t know the context in which they were written well enough to do so.

Get to the point already

Ok, so if you’ve made it this far, I thank you for persevering—this has been a roundabout way to approach Gleick’s ideas. But here we go.

His first point is that, given the sheer volume of information we’re creating on the Internet and with electronic tools, how will anyone in the future figure out what was really going on in our culture?

Fortunately, the superset of all information on the Internet in 2011 is already being reduced through natural and human means. Sites come down, technology goes out of use, people delete information, and the once “complete” picture of the Internet at a point in time decays. Over the course of 2000 years, this decay will be substantial—who can say what will be left and how well or poorly it will represent the larger context within which we all encountered it?

So the answer to his concern, “Who, if anyone, will decide what parts of our culture are worth preserving for the hypothetical archaeologists of the future? Can any identification scheme help readers distinguish true copies from false copies in the online world’s hall of mirrors?”, is that, like all cultural artifacts, the artifacts contained in our Internet will endure and pass away according to a logic that is larger than we are, driven by people we will never know.

Not sure if that’s comforting, but at least it puts us in the same boat with everyone who ever came before us.

Can’t we do something about this?

Gleick’s second point is that we should take comfort from the fact that, in the past, folks managed to identify what was important and save it for posterity:

They succeeded in saving for posterity a fair portion of what was worth saving: the speeches of Lincoln (the major ones), the poetry of Shakespeare (but not quite reliably), the plays of Sophocles (except the lost ones), and a few dozen terabytes more.

If they did it, surely we can do it—so take heart, weary web surfers…

But as you might be thinking based on the rest of this post, it’s far more likely that what was saved was a combination of accident and prejudice, and that it’s important only because it has been saved, not the other way around.

If we had all of Sophocles’ tragedies, Lincoln’s speeches, the totality of Paul’s letters, or Shakespeare’s rough drafts, would we still view the paltry stuff we have now in the same light? Or is it the sheer fact that these things somehow survived (through a combination of luck and human determination) precisely the reason that we find them meaningful?

We are (almost) all of us curators these days. We’ll spend time after hours and on weekends to comb through the information out there and promote what we find useful, important, interesting. Heck, this very post is an example of this behavior. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, curation and filtering are the skills of the new information elite—there’s more than enough (actually too much) content to go around, so the real value these days is in raising up the truly valuable for your community.

The final word

So in the end, I don’t share Gleick’s worries—and maybe, with hindsight, thirteen years after he wrote this essay, neither does he. We create things to use here and now, and over the course of the years, as we die away, some of our things do, too. And later, 50, 100, 500, 1000, 2000 years later, folks will stumble upon our things and wonder about the people who made them, who used them, who saved them, who destroyed them. And they’ll understand us as well (and misunderstand us as deeply) as we misunderstand all those who came before us.

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