Where will next century’s historians find records of the past?

Picture of pile of booksSome time ago a crit partner remarked ‘I don’t believe that’ on a passage in a book where I said that two thousand years after a massive, destructive war, much of the early part of that society’s history was lost forever. Well, I stand by what I said. We’re talking about an advanced society in an SF book, where technology has taken over. Think about that. How many of you write letters to people anymore? I don’t – except to technologically troglodyte elderly relatives. Increasingly our written communication is via computers and kept online.

At the moment, I can go to central libraries at State or Country level and look up all sorts of details about the past centuries. Read newspapers and point and laugh at the ads, look up births, deaths, marriages. When I finished high school, marks for the final exam were published in the newspaper. Now, students crash the internet to find out if they passed.

What will happen in the twenty-second century?

I worked in IT from the beginning of the 1980’s. The changes, you’ll agree, have been mind-bogling and the pace of change is showing no signs of slowing. Do you remember the 8inch floppy disk? (No sniggering, please). I do. How many machines do you think could read such a thing anymore? Do you remember Multi-Mate? It was a very early word processor. Do you think MS Word could read one of its files? Come to that, can MS Word read a very old MS Word file? And this is without taking into account changes to operating systems, now defunct operating systems, deterioration in media such as disks and tapes.

Governments are aware of the implications. Either they print everything they get and store it in expensive warehouses or they try to find some way of creating perpetual images online. Investigations into the possibilities had commenced before I left the workforce. To do that, they would have to agree on a format which would have to be readable by any subsequent change to technology. Or they would have to keep machines capable of accessing old versions of documents and reliably updating them. At a cost, of course.

So if all public records are kept in computers and then there is a cataclysmic war in which computers and technology were destroyed all that would be left would be documents from earlier, non-computer times. But even then, we need some luck. We were fortunate that the Rosetta stone, which gave versions of the same text in Latin, Greek and Egyptian Hieroglyphs, provided the key to understanding the written language of Egypt. We still can’t read many ancient monuments left by forgotten civilisations. I’ll add just one historical incident to reinforce the point; the Greeks and the Romans discovered many things about medicine, astronomy, mathematics and the like before the current era. That knowledge was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance. Think it can’t happen again? Think again.