Permanence and Immortality in the Digital Age (Or, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Data)
I decided to write a long time ago — for a number of reasons. Chief among them was immortality. I was born the year David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” was released. It seems David Lean will be immortal for that timeless masterpiece except, in reality, it is only as old as I am and what happens to that masterpiece when those of us who saw it in all of its cinematic glory are gone? The ‘medium’ of Lawrence of Arabia is not video, it is cinema — a larger than life story designed and intended to be experienced on the big screen.
Then again, cinema itself is only a mere century old. We could consider it as originating around the beginning of the 20th Century. Maybe it is not a guaranteed vehicle for immortality. Who is going to watch “Lawrence of Arabia” on their phone? Maybe I underestimate the digital generations of consumers. But while “Lawrence of Arabia” will always exist in some digital form, its viability and importance will probably wane before its 100th birthday.
Digital has screwed up all of our permanence. Please do not misunderstand.
I am not naive, I know that things themselves aren’t permanent but the mediums can aid that. I may not be able to read a Gutenberg Bible due to its fragility however, I can read a copy of a Gutenberg Bible. While we have perhaps lost more works of art than have survived, they are accessible. The book contains everything you need to possess it, and most of us have all of the skills and tools necessary to access the information.
Our mediums have usually improved our information permanence. Oral histories can survive longer when written down. Stories outlive the actors when someone illustrates it. I can still access the ancient stories of the Neandertals and early Homo Sapiens just by standing in a cave and looking at them, feeling the rock wall, imagining. But digital changed all that.
A 360 kilobyte diskette formatted for MS-DOS 3.3 or even CP/M 86 (if you don’t know, don’t worry about it), could contain a Gutenberg Bible. The materials it is made from could possibly last forever in a sense, but the disk is not the information. A fragment of a book may have important information that is still accessible. A fraction of a disc, perhaps not so much. It is only accessible in the presence of a machine that is designed to use it. (Imagine holding a fragment of a DVD in your hand and imagining what it holds… dumb.)
Books, notebook, photographs, films — they all exist. They have a physical existence. Which is one of the problems but also the ultimate benefit. My father’s notebooks on a bookshelf have a presence and a substance that the files on his computers do not. Maybe that is why his computers now reside in my garage — so that there is still a tangible substance. But his grandchildren can not enjoy his thoughts if I don’t make manifest the digital data. (Manifest? Manifesto? A written record …)
And that is my fear, my immortal being will be trapped in a digital archive that even Indiana Jones himself would shy away from. The Temple of Data.
The digital age will be like a sort of Dark Age if someone does not think to train a computer to continuously maintain the access to the information. The generations to come will never improve on “Lawrence of Arabia” but I hope they find a way to preserve and perfect it for the future. David Lean deserves his immortality.