Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The loss of history

Five thousand years ago the Sumerians started writing on clay tablets. Mostly it wasn't interesting stuff, commercial transactions, tax records, the occasional letter or decree. Today these give us an insight into their life that we would not have if we relied only on the official pronouncements and how they would want to be seen by posterity.

Not long after the Egyptians started recording their history, there's the official story in hieroglyphs and the real story in Hieratic script, including an incredibly advanced (for the time) medical text.

Fast forward 3000 years and we have Roman Britain, a time we until recently knew remarkably little about, to the Romans it was a fairly uninteresting provincial outpost and in any case the official histories of the time did not place the same value on objective truth as we do today. Then came the Vindolanda tablets, suddenly we had an insight into the day-to-day life of a Roman garrison in England.

Rome fell, and a lot of information was lost in the west, mostly by a quiet censorship. When books needed to be copied by hand, unpopular books (or unpopular ideas) simply weren't copied and after a few years vanished ... still examples did show up, just as the Vindolanda tablets did.

The twentieth century will probably turn out to be the best documented ever time for future archaeologists. In many countries there was near universal literacy, while from Djibouti to Papua New Guinea the educated elites had been joined by the educated middle classes and printing had become as cheap as it ever was. Electronic media developed during the century and at until the very end of the 20th most people got their news and information on paper.

Then electronic media took over. 24 hour news channels and Internet news took over. In the days of newspapers, yesterday's news wrapped today's fish and chips, but in the days of electronic news, yesterday's news is only a bunch of electrons or magnetic fields. Paper might be preserved, but electronic media only live as long as the publishers want to keep them. In the 1970s the BBC deleted thousands of television programs so they could recycle the magnetic tape they were stored on. They saw no purpose to keeping them. At the time very few people were concerned, television was ephemeral, home video didn't exist and if you missed a programme, you missed it. Today the BBC regrets this and is trying to replace those deleted episodes from third party libraries, old film copies an similar.

Blogger Martin Belam reports that the BBC website is deleting hundreds of sub-sites. To them these have passed their use-by date and are no longer needed. To the future this will probably be seen as cultural vandalism on a par with the deletion of series 1 and 2 of Dad's Army. The BBC deletion is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg. Huge amounts of information exist only on impermanent digital forms, often technically protected using technologies that didn't exist 10 years ago and may not exist in 10 years time.

There is the Internet Archive, but it's coverage is erratic and in the long term its future is far from certain. It's a small start, let's hope it is enough to allow our great-great-great-grandchildren to understand us.

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