Trivialization of history through technology
Last updated on November 5, 2010, 10:41 by Sebastian Mihai
Humankind wants to know more about how humankind used to be. We dig up relics of our predecessors; we try to get a better picture of how ancient cultures used to function. It is akin to solving a puzzle, but one with missing pieces, and with some pieces quite old, worn, and possibly unreliable.
What if history becomes trivial in the (near) future? For a number of years now, we have been archiving everything. Every news, discovery, treaty, everything that has happened recently (a few decades) can be found somewhere on the Internet. Within minutes, we can read doctoral dissertations of researchers on the other side of the planet, or perhaps find out how many people died on September 11, 2001 in the twin towers. But this sort of thing has been around for enough for us not to think twice about it.
If we think of information archival and transmission as it was about 700 years ago (which mind you, is not that long if you consider the age of humankind), it is amazing to realize that a simple letter took days or weeks to travel from Western to Eastern Europe, for example. Archival of information was decent, however, at a very broad level; so basically we know of large-scale events – those are relatively well recorded by scholars and monks – but information dealing with minute details are not. One could indeed make the argument that minute details are useless, but in my opinion, we are curious enough to care. We care about the personal hygiene of the ancient Egyptians, about what went on inside the households of mediaeval England, and about the sexuality of William Shakespeare.
We really are storing minute details these days about everything. We know which rehab facilities Lindsay Lohan prefers, Oprah's weight and her secret food shame. Twitter is full of details; some Facebook profiles receive updates multiple times an hour with details. Blogs contain details, personal websites contain details, and so on.
An interesting area where the historical preservation of details takes place increasingly better is genealogy.
Genealogy is something we track more or less inherently. But family trees are hard to preserve and to track, or at least were, up until about ten years ago. For example, can you name one of your great-great-grandparents (that is, a grandparent of one of your grandparents)? I can only name one - the guy whose family name I bear - and he was named Ion Mihai. Unfortunately, I have no idea what he looked like; all I know is his name and that he was a farmer who also raised honey bees, goats, and cows.
Going forward a generation, I think most of us remember at least two great-grandparents, and possibly know the names of around four. Grandparents are easy-mode; we have pictures of them, and even film. Obviously, going from grandparents forward we (as in the 'we' of right now) are able to preserve this kind of genealogical information very well, if we want to, storing it on large amounts of pictures and film using our seemingly endless supply of gigabytes (I wonder if this will sound funny in about 40 years). Our grandchildren will have even easier ways of preserving material about us. The archival of information only gets easier from now on.
The transmission of historical data is definitely becoming easier. Within a surprisingly small amount of time (a few tens of years), we have moved from using libraries of physical repositories (books) to using the Internet and its electronic repositories.
The amount of historical data we are storing is definitely becoming larger. If we used the volume taken up by one book to store a hard disk drive instead, our information storage capacity would increase one million times.
So what about history? Could it be trivialized in the near future? Maybe history courses will be removed from curricula. Is it unreasonable to expect academic essays comparing historical figures to be written by computers with their already existing access to the legacy of humans? Perhaps such essays will be superfluous in a few hundred years. In about two hundred years will anyone care about the history beginning with the twenty-first century? I am positive that certain unsolved (as of right now, 2010) enigmas from the past (such as in-depth information about long-gone civilizations that offer scarce archeological treasures, etc.), will still be researched for a while. However, will all interesting information our species has been generating since year two thousand (and whatever else we generate in the future) be trivial and uninteresting?
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