Illuminated History

The further back we go in time, the more of human history recedes into the mists of ignorance. A scant few centuries ago, before the invention of the printing press, books were a rare and expensive luxury. Further back beyond that, we have only the word of a few chroniclers, passed down and recopied through the generations, and often of dubious reliability. Then even the era of named historians ends, and only fragments and scraps of documents remain to give us glimpses into the past, like peering into the world through a keyhole. Beyond that we must rely on archaeology and paleontology, the study of durable rubbish and bones that past civilizations have unwittingly left behind, from which we can only infer the events of prehistory.

But in more recent times, the rate at which humanity produces information has exploded, and is continuing to grow exponentially. We who are alive at this time should consider that future generations may know our history far better than we know the history of any who have come before us. And while I don’t agree with the rapturous essayists who claim that the internet is poised to transform human society beyond all recognition, I think it will play a major role in this documentary process.

Of course, since the invention of mass media like television and newspapers, the events of history have been well documented and ample material is available for researchers of the past. But TV and newspapers have inherent limitations: their distribution is expensive and the space and time they have available to convey information is strictly limited, and as a result, only a privileged few can participate in these channels. They are excellent sources for chronicling the events of a time, but they cannot offer more than a narrow cross-section of what ordinary people were thinking and feeling. Letters and diaries from the past are better sources of this information, but they are inherently private and not always easily discoverable or accessible.

The internet, and especially the rise of weblogs, has changed all that. For the first time in human history, there is now a public forum for communication with no practical limits to capacity. Thriving communities can form, and have formed, made up not of societal elites but of ordinary people, discussing their views on the issues of the day. Different perspectives flourish and come into contact, freely exchanging information and opinions. And as our ability to search and catalogue this information only grows, future historians will find it far easier to study. I wonder sometimes, will academics a few hundred years from now be studying our blog posts and comments to get a sense for the spirit of our times? Will Ph.D. theses be written on, say, the shift in the American political landscape from 2000 to 2020 as reflected in the diaries of the Daily Kos community, or the American evolution vs. creationism struggle recorded in posts on the Panda’s Thumb?

The internet’s one great disadvantage is its fragility. Stone inscriptions weather, and libraries can burn, but no other record has the potential to vanish forever as easily and irretrievably as digital records can. The internet is often described as having an infallible collective memory, and on an individual scale this may be true. But we shouldn’t overlook the possibility of some cataclysm that could overthrow our civilization, as past civilizations have been overthrown, and potentially destroy our records beyond recovery. Efforts like the Internet Archive are a worthy start at creating a more lasting record, but they are still only a start. For the sake of our descendants who will want to know about us, I wonder if it might not be worth the effort to create some type of publicly funded and publicly available repository, in a more durable format, that would preserve the output of our global digital community for posterity.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    “And as our ability to search and catalogue this information only grows, future historians will find it far easier to study.”

    Or far harder, as the mass of sources to shift through becomes ever greater, to actually put together a coherent picture of what was going in…

  • Polly

    made up not of societal elites but of ordinary people, discussing their views on the issues of the day.

    I agree in principle and in another decade this will probably be the case. Certainly, media has been further democratized by the net, no doubt about it. But, for now, I think bloggers and members of the internet community as a whole, including consumers of e-information are a self-selecting group of above-average educated citizens with other attendant demographic similarities. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve been to a Starbucks recently, or have used a word with an umlaut. :)

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Why is it virtually everyone on the net not only seems to know English no matter what country they’re from, BUT they write it really well, better than a lot of my fellow countrymen? I’m struck by the rally of coherent arguments and comments back and forth. There really is a relative dearth of stupidity on the net. There are loons and nuts, of course, but very few inarticulate blatherers. The medium itself kind of pre-qualifies entrants by setting the bar at some minimum level of technical sophistication and the ability to express one’s self non-verbally.

    In short: For now, I doubt that the net is representative of the general populace, probably a minority.

    Anyone with the requisite knowledge of a script can pick up an ostracon (pottery fragment used before paper) and read it. In the future, they will need the same equipment, or backward compatibility going centuries, in order to peer into our archives. The legacy of our civilization hangs on ASCII!

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Dominic Self said:

    Or far harder, as the mass of sources to shift through becomes ever greater, to actually put together a coherent picture of what was going in…

    I see what you’re saying, but I think any historian worth his salt would rather be spoilt for choice on sources than not have any, or very few. Can you imagine what we would know about ancient civilisations from thousands of years ago, if we had access to hundreds of thousands of written journals? What historian today would turn down that opportunity on the grounds you’ve suggested?

  • Ric

    Ebon, your task is clear, then: start printing out the internet. I’ll help you. You start on the west side and I’ll start on the east side. :)

  • http://halakhicwoman.blogspot.com Halakhic Woman

    I lay awake at night worrying about this very problem. It would be good to try and save all this information somehow (or print it! haha), but it may easily disappear and our society may be as forgotten as the pre-ancients you describe–and we will never know about it.

  • jpok

    I suspect the internet will do more damage to religion than anything else could. Religion feeds on sequestering its followers so that they never think about opposing viewpoints. To be sure, the loonies can certainly use the internet to get their message out (yesterday I watched a video of a man trying to prove that the flood in Genesis caused the Grand Canyon, and that dinosaurs existed a few thousand years ago) but the vast majority of people will recognize who’s full of shit and who isn’t, when exposed to both.
    My father converted to Christianity in the 60′s when he was 15, and somehow remains one today. He read Mere Christianity and was really impressed by it. I can’t imagine that happening were he 15 in the year 2007, with instantaneous access to opinions and commentary that easily shred Lewis’ weak points to bits.

  • Polly

    Funny, I read Mere Christianity for the first time mere weeks before I became an atheist. Though I had already been a true believer all my life, I found the arguments flawed and superficial.
    The internet helped me greatly in that the variety of perspectives I found from reading other posters’ comments on a Bible blog spurred me on to research the Bible’s history myself. (talkorigins also opened my eyes to the foolishness of YEC)The net brought me into contact with a much broader spectrum of people who didn’t think like me and knew things about MY holy book that I didn’t know. I always had a strong, but narrow, knowledge base – I knew the Bible backward and forward. But, I never learned ABOUT the Bible until others forced the question to the forefront of my mind.
    The net puts people in contact with people all over the world and from all different cultures, albeit as I mentioned above, a more educated segment of those cultures. Unlike TV, arguments are given full expression in long essays and the ability to quickly insert references to supporting sources.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    “Or far harder, as the mass of sources to shift through becomes ever greater, to actually put together a coherent picture of what was going in…”

    Can you imagine what Google will be able to do in 200 years? I’m only half joking…

  • Charles

    #6 by: jpok said:

    I suspect the internet will do more damage to religion than anything else could.

    Indeed. Check out thunderf00t’s The Internet: Where Religions Come To Die video. (Also at Dawkins’ website.)


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