a little east of reality

Thursday, June 23, 2005

file formats & lost memories

Being a person who's into photo journalling (and with all the love of original photos, acid free mediums and archive quality paper that entails) I was interested to read this post from mjp. I've quoted quite a bit of it below:
We are increasingly relying on digital methods to produce and store many of the things we create, and that is a frightening prospect. ever try to open a 20 year old computer program on a modern computer? what's that, you don't have a 5.25 floppy drive? neither do i. neither does anyone else you know. and if they do, odds are you can't connect it to your powerbook. and even if you did manage to hook it up, it would probably be broken. in 100 years what will our contemporary history consist of? a few years of hard (or futuristic organic plasma) drive backups?

visionaries recognized very quickly that computers would change everything, but i don't think anyone expected such dramatic shifts in the way we create music, art, photography, printed materials --- everything. whether these bit-based creations are as 'good' as traditional creations isn't the point. what we are not-so-gradually losing is not only craftsmanship, but something much worse; our collective memory.
It's a bit of a tangent, I know, but it made me think of Orwell's 1984. If information is power, he who controls the information holds the power. If our memories have a limited shelf life, what does that say for our history? From 1984, a description of the work of the Records Dept in the Ministry of Truth, for which the main character, Winston, works:
...if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.'Who controls the past' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls
the present controls the past.'
Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which
conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.
I know that the history we have is largely an interpretation of history as someone recorded it, but documents, pictures, artefacts, and other evidence have helped us to decipher the interpretations and grasp at least some of the facts. If our factual documents are lost, what kind of history will we rewrite? More importantly, who will do the writing?