In the Guardian today (30 Jan, 2012), the prize-winning writer Jonathan Franzen says that ebooks “will have a detrimental effect on the world” because they lack permanence. “Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now,” Franzen says, “but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring,”
Franzen may have something there. I think our growing reliance on electronic communication (eg email) and publication (eg ebooks, .doc and .pdf documents) leaves future archaelogists and historians very little to work with. No doubt many readers think that the present will be remembered for all time, that we live in a never-ending Information Age. Well, the Romans were also arrogant enough to believe that their imperial glory would last forever; well, the ancient Roman age didn’t last forever, and their written literature was lost for a long time, resulting in the so-called “Dark Ages”. So, if we put our arrogance to one side for a moment, we have to accept that the Information Age will come to an end; and that our ever-growing reliance on electronic forms of documentation will lead to the loss of our literature and written history, and our wonderful Information Age will be looked back upon as another Dark Ages.
The only way to prevent our civilisation from receding into obscurity is to make sure there are hard-copy backups of everything we create. But that’s not going to happen. We are not going to print every email we write or receive, every essay or article or novel we write, for posterity. Where will be able to store all this stuff? We have back-ups on external hard drives and DVDs and tape; and we also have “the cloud” to store files, so we may not even have physical possession of the storage medium. We can act like little Ozymandiases and claim that our data will always be accessible – but that isn’t necessarily true. I’ve got files saved in old proprietary formats on floppy disks. I might be able to retrieve the data if I try really hard – but this is just 20 or 25 years after its creation. Will it still be accessible in 100 years? 1000 years?
We think our progress and ideas and creations are so Earth-shatteringly grand and important; but in the end maybe all our achievements will amount to nothing. And ironically, it will be our technological achievements that cause their own disappearance – if only we’d used a pen to write everything down on paper.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
~”Ozymandias”, by Percy Bysshe Shelley