Picture the scene. It’s 2813 AD and a school class is reviewing the history from the 21st Century. The teacher begins the class with this statement. “The 21st Century is an interesting period in time, mainly because we know so little about it. In many cases, all we can do is speculate”.
What? The 21st Century? The Information Age? The age where we can receive the answers we need at the touch of a button? Where we share almost everything about ourselves on Facebook? Where one hour of footage is uploaded to YouTube every second? Where vast records are stored on each one of us by shadowy intelligence agencies and Internet businesses across the planet? How could this be?
Nevertheless, in 800 years time, little of this will remain. We don’t need to conjure up a great catastrophe for this to happen. The pace of technological change alone could render the records of our lives impenetrable and impossible to discover.
The Dark Ages – a period stretching roughly from 500 AD to 800 AD, is so called because records of this time, in Western Europe at least, are few and far between. The Western Roman Empire was at an end. Migrating tribes roamed the continent and fought each other bitterly in search of a new homeland. Bubonic plague decimated the population. Scholarship disappeared, with the result that almost all Europeans alive could neither read nor write. There are very few accounts of life in Europe during this time.
Literacy and numeracy were reintroduced to Europe mainly via the Islamic World and ever so slowly, books were written and record keeping began again in earnest. The Renaissance saw a re-kindling of learning and with the advent of the printing press, a bright light was shone into the people and the events of the times. Over the intervening centuries, with ever greater literacy and technology, this light has dramatically increased. Now, at the height of this illuminated age, all this knowledge may disappear into thin air rather rapidly.
Paper is by no means a perfect way to keep records, but it has the relative advantages of clarity and durability. In their basic form, books in the 13th century were not much different from books in the 19th Century. With a bit of luck, they might have avoided being set on fire or being destroyed by an iconoclast, allowing trained historians to read them and interpret them with relation to other books from the time.
But all this could now stop because we are now moving away from paper as a primary means of storing information. Instead, our records have moved to electronic media. Computers, laser disks, hard drives and distributed private server farms (aka the Cloud), now hold much of the information produced each day. More and more data is encrypted, meaning that even if you had the technology to read the data, you might not have the keys required to decipher the information. Most private companies will eventually fail, and with them their vast storage capabilities may go dark. Furthermore, the information is electronic and magnetic in nature, meaning that it may not have the permanence of ink on paper. A few magnetic storms or simply the effects of loss of charge over time may put paid to most of our electronic records in a relatively short period.
Historians of future centuries will have a big problem on their hands, should paper disappear entirely over the coming decades. Ironically, they may need to look towards less advanced societies or communities to find primarily records from the past. Luddite paper loving hold-outs or impoverished societies on the far side of the digital divide might provide the only keys to the goings on in our century.
Of course archaeologists will have a field day, given the amount of non recyclable trash available to them. We’re a filthy lot, so they won’t have too many problems figuring out how we lived, or what we wore, drove or ate. It’s just that there may not be any voices from that time, adding colour to this picture. In the total absence of available records, we literally become prehistoric, like ancient Celtic or Germanic tribes.
Paper is not quite dead yet, so I expect we are a long way from total darkness, but one thing is virtually certain: much of what we are recording today – the vast billions and trillions of megabytes recorded each day – will eventually go missing. We are an information rich, yet record poor, society. If we ignore this issue, it will reverberate down the generations.