A while ago, I posted an article about the fact we are living in a potential "Digital Dark Age". Now, this got me thinking about our responsibility to ensure our images are 'future proofed'. So I decided to reach out to UWA historian Dr Andrew Broertjes to ask him about what he thinks about the potential loss of digital information and the impact it might have for the future! Many thanks Andrew!
Researchers name: Dr Andrew Broertjes
Affiliation: University of Western Australia
Funding: Honorary position
Research location: Perth
Research Subject: Contemporary US politics (Historian)
Research aim: "?" <-- Hahahahahaha, as a scientist, this makes me laugh! :)
Historically speaking, there are numerous known ‘lost’ documents (and probably unknown too). There are also documents out there that cannot be read or translated. How irritating are these to historians? How much of a loss are they to human knowledge?
At the end of the day, you have to work with what you’ve got. The loss to human knowledge is very difficult to quantify, and you do see those great timelines showing the impact of the loss of the Library of Alexandria (we’d have wound up landing on the moon in the 16th century etc etc). On a more realistic front in terms of my own work, the fire that ripped through the Cotton Library in the seventeenth century was of incalculable damage, as it was one of the largest repositories of medieval manuscripts, letters etc. We know from catalogues that survived the fire about a lot of the specific material that was contained within there (including some crucial letters that could change how we view kings like Richard III), but are now just lost to us. Interestingly enough, when I was at the British Library in 2004, they were beginning to have electronic document readers that used ultraviolet light, so that some of the fire blackened manuscripts from the fire could be read
Do you think this potential DDA (Digital Dark Age) is a real concern and do you think it could potentially affect the way your future colleagues view this electronic era?
It’s interesting that when emails started, people insisted on printing them off and formally filing them…but the sheer mass of information is making that harder and harder to do (I receive on an average day around 60 emails). And we’ve seen with the Hillary Clinton email “scandal” how problematic it is if material gets deleted. So I think there are concerns.
Is this something that academics think about? Did you think about it before reading my post?
Yes, absolutely. You might want to track down the various digital humanities projects that are going on (you can find links on facebook, or I can put you in touch with the relevant people)…it’s an issue in terms of current material, but also how we preserve and make accessible the information and sources from the past.
Ok, lets take 2 examples: i.) Selfies (sigh). They completely over the top these days, but I could imagine the potential future historical value of them. They not only display a time stamped fashion index, but also is probably the largest source of human pictures imaginable.
ii.) Twitter. There are over 500,000,000 tweets per day. Sure, 99.9% are nonsense to me, but some have proven to be an incendiary to recent historical events.
Both of these represent a huge amount of first person accounts of events, both big and small. Would you consider the preservation of these sources important for historical records? If (this is a real IF) this data is inaccessible or lost in the future, how much of a historical loss do you think it could be?
I think this is a really interesting question, particularly the role Twitter played in the Arab Spring uprisings. I think a lot of what people have to do (and are doing of course) is to screenshot and save these things as they are happening, as material can get deleted quite quickly for personal reasons, as a response to threats etc etc. I think the potential historical loss of such material could be great, but again, it’s a bit difficult to calculate.
Assuming that in 100 years from now we will probably have incompatible power sources for our ‘current’ devices, and that any of the future devices will work on a completely different architecture. What do you think historians of the future will have to go through to access the digital data of today (e-mail records, texts, photos, videos) assuming nothing changes?
Funnily enough, this is already becoming a problem that we’ve seen with the switch from VHS to DVD, and then from DVD to computer files. So how future historians can work around that is quite difficult. A medieval manuscript is perfectly readable (providing you know Latin or whatever). Accessing a videotape with no video players? Pretty much impossible.
Do historians think of the present as being a future past? Do you think it is, at least in part, a historian’s job to help preserve and perpetuate data for their future colleagues? If yes, how are you doing that?
Not as such, and the preservation of documentation is the role of an archivist, not an historian. Certainly my research is in electronic and hard copies.
What would be the best form to maintain documents to make them future proof? Is this a realistic option?
For a lot of things, hard copy is the way to go…but again, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen! And you’re never going to know what people in the future are going to find interesting/worthy/relevant. A good example is the work of Margery Kempe, who was an English mystic in the early fifteenth century. Her work gives us a fascinating insight into changing religious ideas, the role of women in society etc etc. But if you asked anyone in fifteenth-century England who she was, you would have received blank looks. It’s only because her autobiography was discovered in 1934 we have this information. Historians (particularly feminists) find the whole thing very exciting, but it’s pure luck that it survived…certainly the majority of people at the time didn’t think she was in any way significant.
What do you think we should do in order to preserve all the digital information we have amassed?
I think that’s the million dollar question! Not really sure.
What else have you got to say or the general public should be made aware of on this subject, if anything?
Not much really, other than to say that the preservation of knowledge and source material is important, but only part of the process of historical enquiry. In terms of how to handle source material and the general writing of history, you should pick up EH Carr’s What is History?, which is a short, excellent introduction to the field.
Take home message :
1) Print your best images for you to hopefully avoid the potential dark age.
2) Make sure you images are the best you can make them, you never know how important they might be in the future! :D