When We Are No More

Why is the future of our collective memory under threat and how can we safeguard it for the future?

Abby Smith Rumsey, an historian and writer explores these questions in her book When We Are No More. Having previously worked for the Library of Congress’s Digitial Preservation Programme, Rumsey’s book is a fascinating insight into the threat of ‘Digital Amnesia’.

Memory, she argues is about the future, and through recording the past we are able to reduce the threats posed by our innate curiosity in the present. The externalisation of knowledge is however nothing new and Rumsey succinctly illustrates this, beginning with the development of writing in Mesopotamia to our present information overload.

The effort to preserve valuable media is effectively portrayed through Rumsey’s reference to Jefferson’s prophetic vision, that ‘all knowledge is in one place for all people’ . As a wealthy and determined bibliophile, Jefferson established one library after another, however the destruction of several of those through fire and war show the material threat to such a vision.

Fast forward a few centuries and where do we find ourselves now? Today our knowledge is increasingly preserved in digital media. In reference to a commonly held division between the artificial and the natural, Rumsey argues that humans, as culture-making creatures are immersed in feedback loops of technological innovation. Making the disctinction between computer and human ‘memory’ she writes of computer memory as a design to preserve everything whereas human memory, as a survival mechanism finds strength in forgetting. The abundance of information which we externalise instantaneously is, Rumsey argues one of the greatest threats to our long term memory in the digital age.

Despite recognising that human memory is destined to forget, Rumsey’s argument is that as a culture we need to enable digital memory to remember everything. She describes our era of memory as forensic, where we can imagine limitless possibilities for the extraction of information, from any medium in the future.

This endeavour to preserve against Digital Amnesia can be seen in organisations such the Internet Archive, who are championing the systematic preservation of the web. This long term thinking, further reinforced through a reference to the Long Now foundation is exemplary of Rumsey’s view that ‘Our obligation to future generations is to ensure they can decide for themselves what is valuable.’

The approach to save everything certainly seems the most fail safe way of preserving knowledge for the future however what are the practical implications for such a feat?

Ramsey proposes three steps toward answering that question. The first, that we must look more at the processes through which the past manufactures the future to avoid the risk of losing that past. The second, that we must look to nature to understand how information is embodied in media — this leads to the issue of DNA and memory storage in genetic form. The third, that we will outsource more memory and retrieval tasks to machines which will outperform us, leaving us with more imaginative and emotional space as humans.

As we struggle to keep up with the latest technological advances Rumsey’s words encourage us to stop, and use our imagination for the larger picture. There are steps we can take to prevent the loss we are now facing but as Rumsey soberly puts it, ‘whether we do or not is now in our hands.’

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