Monday, January 24, 2011

The Dark Ages of the Future

There is a mini-meme going around about the fragility information in a digital society. The argument goes that, because we manage information in proprietary digital formats and rapidly changing devices, we are increasing the risk of losing everything. Archeologists of the future will not be able to analyze MS Word 2010 files on old hard drives like the archeologists of today can read ancient texts on papyrus and stone. One of the better posts is Cheryl McKinnon's article "From information overload to Dark Ages 2.0?" and the video embedded below.

I call this a mini-meme because it is not stirring up a Y2K-bug-grade hysteria. I guess you need images of planes falling out of the sky to get that level of reaction. The concern for this is more in line with that of the constant low level anxiety that all CIOs feel from the information overload problem — "this is a big problem that we are going fix after we take care of all the urgent matters on our plate."

We do need to curate and preserve information that is important. We need to do it on an individual level so our descendants can know where they came from and we need to do it on a societal level to teach future civilizations what we know. The problem is that we have a lot of crap to sift through. It used to be that producing information assets was hard and expensive. If you got an idea to create something, you would consider the effort and cost it would take to produce and distribute it, and then weigh that against the value. If something was created, you could assume that someone thought it was important. Now... not so much (queue the LOLCats).

In ancient times you had to have near-deity status for someone to go through the trouble of carving your likeness in stone. The cost of portraiture has been steadily going down to the point where now people don't even know when their picture is being taken. Remember, not long ago (before digital photography became the norm), you would really hesitated before snapping the shutter because each picture would cost you regardless of whether it even came out or not? When I got my first digital camera, I would snap away but delete the photos off the card to save space. Now I don't even bother to delete the bad ones. You can even go onto Facebook and see that a grainy blur has been tagged as you.

The same thing happens in the office. When I came of age professionally, one of my first responsibilities was to produce and distribute a productivity report. This meant running the report, printing it, making copies, and then putting them in physical mail boxes. It took the better part of a morning to do it. If there was even an outside chance that report wasn't useful, that task would disappear. Ten years earlier, I would have had to type up the report and run it through a mimeograph. It would have taken more than a day and wouldn't have been worth it. Now email inboxes are flooded with automatically generated reports that nobody reads.

It will be difficult to go through all the digital information we are producing and decide what is worthy of preserving for the long term. We will probably procrastinate this effort until there is some sort of scarcity or scare that brings the threat of loss to the forefront. When we do get around to it, however, I think we are going to learn about ourselves in the process.