Historian Abby Smith Rumsey on how digital memory shapes the future

As electronic records replace physical ones, how do we make sure we don’t overwrite our history?

old records and new records

Historian and archivist Abby Smith Rumsey has long been fascinated by the way information technology shapes our collective memory and perceptions of history. Trained as a Russian scholar, she’s worked in Soviet-era archives and spent a decade at the Library of Congress.

In her new book, When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future, Rumsey explains that the Internet is not a stable archive like a library. Rather, it is a bulletin board, constantly being rewritten without a record. This can have far-reaching implications when so much progress humans make relies on what we remember and have recorded from previous eras. What happens to human progress as our methods of record-keeping become ever more vulnerable?

In an interview with Slack, Rumsey explains why sorting and organizing data, not simply storing it, should guide our digital practices, and how digital record-keeping is essential to the health and progress of humanity.

Slack: You note that in the past, when humans wanted to preserve culture for future generations, we invented tools, such as the printing press, or storage, such as libraries. Why hasn’t our ability to preserve digital data caught up with our ability to produce it?

Abby Smith Rumsey
Abby Smith Rumsey

Rumsey: We generate almost unimaginable volumes of digital data, between the exabytes of data streaming down from deep space probes, weather satellites (and who knows how much from spy satellites), to the mapping of the human genome. Science is data-intensive. But so are preteens with smartphones who send tens of thousands of messages and photos — some they create, others they resend. A gigabyte here, and zettabyte there, pretty soon you’re talking real scale.

But volume is only a problem if you want to keep more data than you have storage for. The default mode of good memory is not “everything.” It is “everything we will need and want to know in the future.” We haven’t saved every single TV news broadcast, every radio program, every photograph ever taken, every office memo or scrap of paper with a grocery list on it. Not being able to throw away ephemera is diagnosed as an illness!

The problem today is that digital is new. We’re just beginning to understand what may have long-term value and what won’t. That’s natural, if regrettable. Eighty percent of all silent films are lost because people thought they were just ephemeral commercial products with no intrinsic cultural or informational value.

We need more storage, yes, but more important is developing better ways to organize and search what we have and letting redundant texts, emails, photos go.

Slack: You laud the partnership in which Twitter donates its archive to the Library of Congress for preservation. What other types of partnerships for maintaining digital data do you envision for the future?

Rumsey: It is sobering to think about how dependent the average Internet user is on “free” platforms for mail, messaging, instagramming, snapchatting, tweeting, photo sharing, uploading videos, downloading shared work files. These platforms are all privately owned. That means the companies have ultimate control over the long-term fate of all those data — our personal data, in many cases.

Future access to our own history depends on actions taken today to preserve and maintain information. That requires organizations that are accountable to the public and that last for centuries. Think archives, not MySpace, wherever that is today. The commercial satellites our government relies on for GPS, the creative content companies who license — not sell — music to us, the sites that publish e-only content — all should partner with an archive to ensure long-term access to valuable cultural, scientific, and government data after the companies go out of business or discard data that no longer turns a profit for them.

Slack: If we lose the ability to access memories made in the digital era, how might this impact human progress in the future?

Rumsey: Memory is the way the brain accumulates knowledge of the world and of ourselves. All creatures, from amoeba to zebra, rely on the working model of the world stored in their memory banks. Wipe those memories out, induce amnesia in us, and we won’t remember who we are, where we are, what just happened.

Humans have created a uniquely powerful supplement to natural memory — the ability to record knowledge on durable physical objects and use in the future, be it a clay tablet or a printed page. Wipe out the digital data that encodes the locations of toxic waste, the contents of IRS records, or the service records of veterans, we would find navigating the present so fraught with distress and danger that investment in the future would be a luxury we couldn’t afford, the notion of progress a cruel joke.

Brittany Shoot is constantly trying to emulate her educator grandparents and librarian in-laws. Ask her about books, blouses, and handwritten correspondence.

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