In principle it sounds like a good idea. In actuality it’s so close to impossible that it’s barely worth considering. Though it raises important questions.
I just did some searching for the amount of information produced in a year. I quite quickly fell down a rabbit hole of numbers at best meaninglessly immense, and at worst, based on annoying assumptions (ie Including all duplicate information, like multiple copies of DVDs). One example was that all the information created in 2011 could be re-encoded as HD movies, and take 47 million years to watch. And remember that that’s encoded information, which means essentially that every frame of that 47 million year film would have to be captured in hard copy, and kept somewhere.
And that’s the last year. And apparently it doubles every two years. The job would be Sisyphean, and we wouldn’t even be a decent margin through the job before we actually drowned in whatever hard copy form we chose.
Of course, there’s actually a difference between information and knowledge. And those numbers are all blatantly made up anyway.
So what would we select for documentation? We already keep all the books published in the UK in the Bodlean and the British library. That’s got to count for a fair bit? Even there though, how can you be certain that great ideas aren’t going to get buried. You can’t.
We worry about historians not being able to piece together our lives from the corrupted hard drives our apocalypse leaves behind, but realistically, how many historians are going to be able to wade through that many lolcats to get to the odd piece of brilliance.
I’m not saying historians are lazy, because they clearly aren’t. That kind of filtering and processing is exactly how great delights can be found, but the problem will become orders of magnitude larger as the amount of absolute nonsense and repetition being spewed by the world is increasing. There is loads of fascinating stuff going on, but it take ridiculous networks of people scouring, and ridiculously good skills at separating signal and noise to just find interesting stuff that is happening now.
Imagine you are faced with the archive of the internet, over the last decade, and you want to find people’s views on terrorism during this period. Can you imagine the amount of information available?
Like I say, the task of documentation would need to be looking at knoweldge, not just information. We’d need to be sure that we were saving the valuable things. And we are in no position to do that.
Our perspective is warped by our immediate understandings, and historians need more than our biased interpretation of ourselves. Or perhaps they’ll be biased enough to see right through us.
The thing is, we are not in control of what is going on now. The world is confusing and nobody understands it. Is worrying about how much the future will understand worthwhile?
Probably, but we also need to make sure we have a future too.
Illustration by Emma