Thursday, December 3, 2009

Something to ponder

The Post Carbon Institute is a think tank that seeks to supply "individuals, communities, businesses, and governments with the resources needed to understand and respond to the interrelated economic, energy, and environmental crises that define the 21st century."

A couple of months ago, the Institute published "Our Evanescent Culture and the Awesome Duty of Librarians," in which Richard Heinberg outlined the macro-level threats to the survival of digital information. Among them: failure to maintain reliable sources of power generation and delivery, nuclear war, and the systemic vulnerabilities associated with living in an increasingly interconnected world.

Sometimes, those of us charged with preserving digital information are so focused on the very real short-term threats such as file corruption, hardware failure, and software obsolescence that we sometimes forget that, as Heinberg asserts, "digitization represents a huge bet on society’s ability to keep the lights on forever."

Can we keep the lights on forever? Even if you think that the Post Carbon Institute's being overly alarmist about global warming and fossil fuel supplies, you have to admit that we're taking an awfully big gamble. A number of years ago, an historian of medicine told me that, statistically speaking, humanity is really overdue for a pandemic that combines the mortality rate of AIDS with the contagiousness of the common cold -- and for the social, political, and economic havoc that such pandemics wreak. We haven't experienced a "hot" global war for over sixty years, but in the larger scheme of things, sixty years is the mere blink of an eye.

And, of course, it's quite likely that one day our culture will be known chiefly through archaeological digs and a few surviving artworks and texts. Woe betide the 30th century archeologist who unearths a cache of data tapes!

Heinberg concludes that, given the very real risk that digital information will be lost, librarians (and, by extension, archivists) should be mindful of the importance of "conservation of essential cultural knowledge in non-digital form." Maybe he's right: perhaps we should devote a little effort to leading the public discussion about how our culture should be remembered and making sure that at least some information about our values and accomplishments is preserved in human-readable form.

Read the whole article. It's really good.

(Hat-tip: Alan's Notes on Digital Preservation.)

No comments: