Pity the Future Historian

Our age might be one of humanity’s most consequential. It might also be veiled in mystery.

Victoria Hermann, a US government researcher, recently outlined how the Trump administration has been systematically deleting the data sets her and her colleagues had been accumulating over decades.

Hermann argued that the new administration, affronted by the empirical reality behind a changing climate, had adopted a new strategy at concealing the reality: simply deleting the evidence.

We have seen in history incoming governments eradicate information that debunks their world views. But the book burnings in Hitler’s Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia were large-scale endeavours. Today, the same effect can be had with the flick of switch, hidden from public scrutiny.

The evaporation of these data sets reveals the vulnerability of today’s information. As we transfer the bulk of human knowledge into the digital realm, we have expanded its accessibility for now.

But digital data does not last forever. The monumental volume of digital information will decay over time, and these momentous few decades — the earliest years of a new internet age — will be a black spot in the historic record compared to the centuries to come.

Few historians will be able to make sense of these years through any sources beyond the literature of our period. This is still valuable, of course: we explore the ancient world through its texts, and future historians will make sense of our world through today’s great works.

But the history of the citizen, of the forgotten man and forgotten woman, will in the future be itself forgotten and inexplorable unless newer technologies in data preservation soon emerge.

Some of the most important primary sources for historians — those first hand accounts of everyday people: the letters to family during war, the diaries of a worker during a depression — will not exist. Today’s citizen-communications will be virtually lost as our digital footprints dissolve with the passage of time.

Our text messages, our blog posts and even our most weighty email tomes, all of which beam effortlessly across the world, have no defence against the physical deterioration to which all hardware eventually succumbs.

The internet, after all, is a physical entity: a connection of hard-drives and servers that have a lifespan shorter than many of us realise — a nanosecond in the grand scheme of time.

And even the raw-materials on which we rely to create storage devices are dwindling. With current technology, by 2040, the quantity of data will outpace the quantity of materials we can extract from the earth to store it.

Scientists are aware of the challenge, and novel approaches to this challenge are being explored by today’s innovators.

German researchers, for example, are pioneering the storage of data within human DNA as a way of concentrating vast volumes of information into smaller entities. Just further south, deep in an abandoned salt mine by the shores of Austria’s Lake Hallstatt, ceramacist Martin Kunze is devising innovative ways of preserving today’s digital culture on clay.

In just a few years, our global digital pool of everything from climate data to cat videos will exceed 44 trillion gigabytes. This information overload will exponentially grow over time as more of our lives become digitised. But where will it be in 100 or 1000 years?

It is ironic that at such a pivotal moment in Western history, our historic record will be so difficult to explore for future historians looking for the causes of today’s forces of change.

Its not as if they will have no record of our time, its just that this record will be viewed from the top down and not through the lens of everyday people. And there’s a lot to make sense of.

They will see that just over two centuries ago, a once steadfast system of governance — monarchy — ceded its legitimacy to a new form of liberal, market-driven political-economy. The revolutions in France and America at the end of the eighteenth century transferred governance from deified ruling elites to what was promised to be the people themselves.

In its place though, a new form a religiosity emerged — a fervent belief in the market and institutions that the enlightenment gave the West, which in turn carried these ideals across the continents through a colonial expansion. The future historian will see the collapse of the remaining opponents of this new world order in the early 1990s and chuckle at the boldness of Fukuyama’s claim that history itself was at an end.

But then they will see the inevitability of our historic trajectory sharply tack in the wake of the GFC and the rise of political figures capitalising on the failures of a global economic framework they might fundamentally transform. Today is truly a pivotal time.

When they ask why, though, where will they look for ground level answers?

In a millennia, our Facebook and Twitter feeds will cease to exist. Even if they did, the tendency for us to only publish our best-selves in the digital realm will make much of this information invalid, or at least questionable.

The best primary sources — our personal communications about the world in which we live — are doomed to disappear as we shift our lives solely to a medium that cannot possibly store information for eternity.

Pity the future historian. Our age might be one of humanity’s most consequential. It might also be veiled in mystery.

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