Sunday, May 31, 2015

The New Dark Ages

I used to tell people that they should read Mencius Moldbug, because he was the single person writing today most likely to be read in two hundred years time.

I still think that’s right (both that you should read it, and that he's the most likely to be read in 200 years), but the more I reflect on it, the more I think the chances he will be read far in the future are still rather small.

The problem, rather, is that we live in the dark ages of the written word.

It’s not that things aren’t being written. Quite the contrary. Perhaps more is being written now, by more people, than ever before.

The sense in which it is the dark ages is that much of the writing from today is likely to be lost to history. Everything is being written in a very temporary format, in a way that will not survive for historians of the future to read.

The vast majority of what is written is on the internet. Anything stored privately stays up only as long as the person paying to have it hosted continues to do so. Should they get slack and stop doing it, or get tired of paying for their web domain, that’s that. But even if it continues to exist, link rot sets in pretty fast, making a lot of the context of the original writing which embeds these links hard to follow. The links you had stored suddenly lead nowhere. You can search for the title and hope you find the new address. If there is one, that is. Often times people deliberately take down what they wrote. You couldn’t unpublish a book, but you can easily unpublish a website.

Some things still survive for longer. Newspapers are generally better at keeping hyperlinks and archives because they’re used to this. Books that get to printing also get kept as before. The only problem is that both newspapers and publishing are, if not dying industries, then at least considerably distressed. See: the internet. And lots of interesting stuff isn’t written in books any more. Neoreaction, for instance, would vanish almost entirely without a trace.

The only hope, as far as I can see, is Google Cache, which does store their own local copies of things (albeit in a considerably degraded form that doesn’t always support images). There are two caveats here, however.

The first is to recognize that the ongoing success or failure of Google’s caching efforts may do more to alter the way that future historians understand the early 21st century more than anything else happening on the planet today. Give that company a medal! They are also unusually open in giving people access to their cached data. Facebook, by contrast, treats your data as their possessions inside a walled garden that they control. Do you think historians of the future will have access to all of this? They sure don’t have access to it today.

The second is to recognize that storing things in a way that will be accessible in 200 years time is surprisingly hard. The simple reason is that technology changes so frequently, and storage devices have incredibly limited lifespans. We live in a time of acid printing, except that what we write on today may as well be 1 molar hydrochloric acid paper.

The only way that documents survive over any period of time is if someone is willing to continually transfer them to whatever the new storage medium is at each point in time. That’s certainly what you have to do for, say, your digital photos. If you think you can just leave them on your current computer, camera or SD card, you’re going to be very disappointed in ten years’ time. Just try getting files off your old 5 inch floppy disks. Heck, try something using a SCSI port or a 3 inch floppy. In ten years time, this is how hard it will be to find a laptop that reads a CD.

Even if you actually do this stuff, it’s going to be a) very ad hoc and selective, and b) stored in random locations by random people around the world. If the google cache doesn’t end up working out, it’s going to be a tough business being a future historian studying the 21st century. They may well end up with fewer primary sources than they have for the early 20th century.

But forget historians. What about your own personal consumption? I used to love reading TJIC’s blog. Now it’s gone, completely.

Take my advice, readers. If there is a blog you like, download the whole thing to your hard drive, now. That still won’t be perfect, because blogs link to each other. If you’re really committed, download everything linked to in each post too. In many cases, you’ll find it’s already too late. For Moldbug, a decent fraction of the primary sources that he linked to are already gone. We are talking about a blog that began in 2007. It is already too late, in 2015, to read his writing in the full original context that was intended. The current period is so dark that we can’t even see fully the things we ourselves once remembered seeing.

If you’re relying on Google to keep everything in perfect order for you to return to in 30 years time, you may wake up one day and find it’s already too late.

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