An analysis of the significance of cultural memory and a warning about its fragility in the digital era.
“This is a little book about a big idea,” writes Rumsey, who specializes in information technologies, digital collecting and curation, and issues of intellectual property. The book is densely written, compressing the entirety of human documentation into less than 200 pages and suggesting what could happen amid the rapidity of cyber change that finds new versions overwriting old, even rendering old files unreadable and anachronistic in the span of a few years. We live in an era of data overload under private control, with our most personal information subject to the safeguarding of Facebook and Google, perhaps more available to data miners than to those whose lives it details. Rumsey warns that “it will be hard to avoid collective amnesia in the digital age” if we continue to entrust data preservation and control to private stewardship rather than the library model that is more open and comprehensive. Over the arc of human history, as far back as Socrates, there has been concern that recording memories might lead to a loss of personal memory. As recording on rock and clay gave way to papyrus, parchment, and paper, the records could proliferate but in a less durable form. Even by the Renaissance, there were concerns of the information overload of print—what to value, what was true. It was a selection process that cyber data makes all the more difficult. There is exponentially too much, and it is all too fragile. “The old paradigm of memory was to transfer the contents of our minds into a stable, long-lasting object and then preserve the object,” writes the author. “If we could preserve the object, we could preserve our knowledge. This does not work anymore.”
Though the author’s analysis stops short of cultural apocalypse, it does show how radically things have changed and why this is cause for concern.