Language Fails Us

"Digital information is forever. It doesn't deteriorate and requires little in the way of material media."

--Andy Grove, Intel

Andy is wrong. Digital media can deteriorate, and when it deteriorates, it deteriorates catastrophically, and can never be fully recovered. And this assumes that the devices that read the digital data and translate it to us remains constant, and remembered, and easily recreatable should they be destroyed.

I've been running the second of Erin's recently added poems (How the Dark Age Ended) around and around again. Here's the premise: just after the fall of Troy, Greece entered a dark age. Not one written record, not one word, can be found from this time. This period lasts 500 years, until Homer bursts on the scene with a remarkably accurate story about the Fall of Troy.

Some speculate that a social or political disaster hit the Greeks that was so severe, the civilization forgot how to write. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what would have had to have happened for all the children of a civilization to stop learning? Can you imagine what it would be like for the parents, to be the last to hold onto this knowledge, and know that, for whatever reason, there was no reason to pass it on to their kids? Can you just picture them seeing the collapse of their civilization yawning before them like a chasm?

And how about at the other side? Who was the first one who decided that a series of scratches on stone would represent a particular spoken word? How did he get those around him to agree to those scratches? And those around them? Can you imagine living at the cusp of this new era, where everything is new and wonderful and is never going to be forgotten?

It's a shocking reminder of our civilization's mortality. If this could happen to the ancient Greeks, why not us?

It's entirely possible (though unlikely) that the Greeks didn't lose their ability to write -- that whatever they wrote was put onto perishable items. It's unlikely, because if something did exist, it's unlikely that all of it could have been lost. However, it is a situation that we find ourselves on the cusp of.

We can read Galileo's technical correspondence from the 1590s, but the notes from Marvin Minski and the scientists of the 1960s are largely inaccessible, due to degraded media, and legacy systems that are incompatible with today's digital readers. CD's promise immortality, but they don't deliver. Magnetic tapes were never immortal to begin with. And without building our own Rosetta stone, there is no guarantee that what we write and commit to binary streams is going to be understood by those who come after us, 500 years on.

Our financial records, our history, this web page, could go the way of the dodo for any number of reasons. James H. Billington of the Library of Congress has set about digitizing the entire collection "so that its contents can become accessible by anyone, from anywhere, forever." Let's hope he doesn't throw out the original paper copies.

Can a dark age open up in the hundred years between 1960 and 2060, not because of a political or social disaster, but because of the inappropriate use of fridge magnets and the assumption that CD's didn't rot? What will our grandchildren remember of us as a result?

But Homer remembered Troy. He couldn't have read about it, so he had to have heard it. Such is the power of oral history. Give praise to our storytellers, for they will save us in the end.


Okay, who here has theories on what happened here?

Further Reading

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