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.