Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Record-Keeping and Impermanence

I was thinking today about the internet. The internet has provided me with a means of documentation beyond anything ever conceived. Think about the wealth of information that one can store on the tubes of the web without having to purge records every month, year, or decade in order make room for new records. Computers, in general, have in the past years increased our ability to horde to an unbelievably efficient level. As I considered all these things, it was clear that I had deified the computers, more specifically the internet, in having developed in their storage capacity, efficiency, and seeming permanence.

I then began to think back to the methods in the past that were used, many of them around in some form today, and their relationship to ideas of permanence. As I did, it became clear that at each point in the development of record-keeping, I assume the deification mentioned above occurred. I have no reason to believe that it would have been any more possible to imagine something that transcends the current means, just as it is hard for us to imagine the "next internet," so to speak, or the fourth dimension. If we could possibly imagine thusly, the internet would cease to be the optimal means available.

Here's the rub. At any time in history, had you inquired as to the efficiency and permanence of that epoch's methods, the response would likely be the same as our current one. "It's the best we've come up with, and greatly transcends those methods that preexisted our present one."

When one thinks about the expansion of storage, one might initially consider a physical dimension, directing their efforts towards minimizing size. This represents the change from paper to bytes, for example. However, consider previous changes. Initially, record-keeping was done in the mind. The mind has the ability, though limited, to store massive amounts of information with relatively small physical space - the brain. Proliferation and saving of said information was done through verbal sharing. From here, we began to understand the possiblities of writing, which led to paper. Writing and paper led us to scrolls, papers, and books. Then, of course, books got bulky and we questioned their ability to survive, citing ancient texts as examples. We then made the change I mentioned earlier, cataloging our paper texts onto electronic form. We're now in a spot where in many our brains' memory capability has been transferred over to harddrives, dvds, and the tubes of the internet. It's interesting to think that, looking through this lens, paper is unduly burdensome and quite the "middle-sibling" in the family of data documentation and storage.

Furthermore, think about the issue of permanence. Writing became a way to add to the life of a story, piece of information, or question. The development of collections of writings came in the form of books, magazines, scrolls, newspapers, etc...this not only made specialization possible, but also served as a catalyst for the design of apparati which store and protect texts. Unfortunately, this became bulky, and most texts were still vulnerable to environmental erosion factors.

Subsequently, we've developed electronic domains for these texts, which eliminates much of the size issue and addresses the permanence issue. However, in the long run, the really long run, pending disaster, will these media (cds, dvds, harddrives, internet storage) be any more capable of surviving than paper, in the perfect storm of conditions? Probably not.

Takeaway point. Don't let these imposters shift the evolution of our brains in the wrong direction. Continue to work on the memorization of information with the brain, especially in modes of storytelling and myth creation.

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