Devices for remembering and forgetting

2400 years ago, an illiterate philosopher condemned writing. It will not make the people wiser, he argued, rather—

“It will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remember no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” — The Phaedrus

Socrates had a point. Before the advent of tablets and scrolls, humans exercised a greater capacity to internalize huge volumes of information (for example, imagine reciting ~1,800 pages of scripture from memory, like these priests in Kerala, India)

As writing overtook oral tradition, and type accelerated distribution, people soon forgot what the world was like before books and newspapers. 

Today, we forget what the world was like before the Internet. As we find ourselves beyond the event horizon of another information revolution, writer Nicholas Carr laments that the Web has rewired our brains:

“Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.” -The Shallows

It is this very reliance on outsourced memory which makes our relationship to data increasingly intimate and vital. By keeping the most critical bits of information that we need to remember and hope not to forget on hard drives or remote servers —and not in our heads— have we set ourselves up for a persistent condition of cultural amnesia, or worse, a Digital Dark Age when those systems fail?

At one time, all recorded knowledge in the western world—all history, science and literature— was stored in a single building. Our situation might seem less precarious. Distributed information networks were originally conceived by DARPA as disaster proof. A cultural cataclysm as total as the burning of Alexandria would seem unlikely, and yet the frightening fact is that much of our data is centralized, in physical storage systems, not securely backed up. Most web sites last for an average of 18 months. Our documents exist in proprietary formats that go obsolete, stored on disposable media designed for short-term use. In the long term, for individuals and societies alike, the steady erosion information through digital obsolescence could amount to incalculably greater losses.