The Importance of Information Preservation

Today I read about the Encyclopaedia Britannica ending its print edition, and this filled me with alarm...

"Historians are at a loss to explain the demise of the first pan-human civilisation, as although they agree that the populous dwindled and went almost extinct at around AD 3500, there seems to be no surviving written historical records that can be dated any later than circa AD 2000."

"It can only be assumed that around this time, that there was a sudden uptake of illiteracy, maybe caused by a new religion or global-governmental policy. There are surviving references to an organisation or group known as the Inter Nets. We can only guess at what this actually was, but the commonly accepted theory is that it was actually some type of wearable mesh harness that prevented humans of this era from actually writing anything down."

Sound ridiculous? I'm not so sure. As information is continually and fully migrated from the printed page and on to the Internet we lose the permanency that a book or ancient scroll brings. Paper and parchment when stored correctly can survive for thousands of years, and if not, the information held within can be transcribed in to replacement volumes when required. If it wasn't for the (well documented) fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria we'd still have knowledge of the information that was contained there today.

I believe in freedom of information. It is just and correct that the common person has access to any fact or figure or historical data they require, and this access should be as easy as tapping or talking to a nearby terminal. However the downside of the digital age is that information storage has become transitory. What you were reading yesterday, may not be there today. Just try and search through the old news pages on many popular news websites and you will see how little of the actual news from previous days is preserved.

Ah, but the Internet will never die you say, it will be replaced by something bigger and better. This may be true but will all the information stored on Internet v1.0 be transferred to Internet v2.0 ? I doubt it. Cataclysmic events have wiped out civilisations many times before, and are sure to do so again. Without proper off-line information preservation everything we know could easily be lost to future civilisations.

Unmaintained, the infrastructure that supports and provides the Internet has a lifespan of less than 10 years, which means after the collapse of civilisation the data held on all the web servers is unlikely to be accessible after a decade or so. Compare that to the many thousands of printed volumes in our great public libraries which will survive for many hundreds of years under the right conditions. We need to keep adding to these physical archives if only to preserve the memory of who we were.

(Originally Written: 14 March 2012)