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When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping our Future by Abby Smith Rumsey

October 29, 2016

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We create a picture of our world based on the knowledge we hold in our minds. The more knowledge, the better suited we are to react to things that come our way. This is true if you’re considering the way humans remember things from our lives, the instinctual behaviors stored in the DNA of all animals or the way civilizations pass down cultural knowledge. Our different types of memory are all designed for the same purpose: “to integrate the knowledge that we have, to impute a sense of cause and effect to the events in our lives, and to offer a sense of meaning.”

Abby Smith Rumsey examines memory—personal, cultural and biological—and how our systems for remembering have changed throughout history, from early cuneiform tablets through modern digital media. She then looks to the future. How will digital storage affect our ability to remember? How will we deal with shortening cycles of technological obsolescence so we can still access stored data? (Anyone who has needed to get a file from an old floppy or zip disk, or still has audio tapes laying around but no tape deck can relate.) And what impact will the sheer volume of data have on our ability to make use of the data?

This is a book with a sprawling scope: part history, part cultural anthropology, part cognitive science, part library science, part computer science. I used up a good part of a highlighter on little bits of trivia and insight peppered throughout. But it never fully ties together.

As a civilization, Rumsey contends, we should remember (store) everything. And as instructed by Thomas Jefferson and the founders, in order to protect a free society, all this information should be readily available to the public so that everyone’s view of the world can be equally informed. This is the information Utopia: all knowledge available to all. It is the philosophy underpinning the concept of the library and, to some degree, the Internet.

She rationalizes data hoarding on the premise that we don’t know what bit of information will be useful to future humans. We don’t have enough context in the moment to always judge if something is of value or not, let alone whether it will be of value in the future. Coincidentally, I’m reading Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We’re Wrong? in which he makes a similar point. He gives the example of Moby Dick, which by most critical and commercial metrics was a complete failure when it was published in 1851. Of course, Moby Dick is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written. What if it hadn’t been stored in libraries? What if someone had, based on its bad 19th-century sales, simply deleted Moby Dick from the cultural memory?

Rumsey use a different analogy—one of biology. She makes the point that a random genetic feature might be handed down from generation to generation for eons until, one day, that seemingly useless protuberance, in the right environment, becomes absolutely useful—a fin, a leg, wings.

In short, save everything. Because you never know.

Of course, this is the same logic that makes possible the show Hoarders. Closets full of random strips of fabric, drawers full of rubber bands, floorboards bending under the weight of every National Geographic published since 1968. Do we want to be as OCD with our cultural artifacts and our data?

I’ll admit my analogy isn’t necessarily applicable. Even with the massive amount of data we now generate, we’re close to being able to store it all (if not make use of it all). But likewise, I’m skeptical of Rumsey’s comparison to genetic inheritance. A frog carrying a bit of helpful fish DNA makes for a vivid illustration, but I don’t know that it is a strong rationale for humans to hoard every bit of cultural data available. Rumsey jumps back and forth between cultural, cognitive and biological memory as if they’re de facto analogous. I’m not sure they are.

“We cannot know what the future value of any archaic or seemingly irrelevant body of knowledge may be. Our obligation to future generations is to ensure that they can decide for themselves what is valuable,” she says. But there must be some value in sorting. In leaving some of the bad material on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. To use the Moby Dick example, there were probably a hundred other books about whales that were rightly forgotten, just as there are millions of blog pages with uninteresting book reviews, bad poetry and scattered thinking that do not deserve to be enshrined for future generations.

To the contrary, it could be argued that there is an opportunity cost to storing junk; even if the storage space is infinite, junk slows us down. I think of the end scene in The Raiders of the Lost Arc. The Arc of the Covenant isn’t buried in a remote cave—it’s taken to some warehouse. Amid a collection so vast that, we’re left to believe, it will never be found. The inclusion of junk decreases the value of the “collection” as a whole by cluttering it.

Whether or not my argument is sound, it’s an illustration of the thought-provoking nature of this book. I wish it was more tied together, but even in scattered bits, it’s interesting. I also wish Rumsey was bolder with her crystal ball. She is wisely hesitant to make specific predictions—far from a Ray Kurzweil—but her broad strokes at what the future will require are too vague to be satisfying. As one reviewer said, this feels like a very interesting start to a very interesting conversation.

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