My hard drive crashed the other day, and my little son threw himself on the floor in a paroxysm of grief, because the stories he had poured so much time and effort into were lost in one fell swoop. The demons of technology had struck again.
This got me to thinking about the way in which we view the documents in our lives. When we start using the computer for data storage, there is the naïve assumption that it is the utopia of archives. What’s not to like? Huge amounts of data can be stored in a tiny little chip. The ease of storage aside, there is the deceptive lure of efficient organization and focused retrieval. Our fingers fly across the keyboard as we produce document after document, confident that everything we produce is going to last forever. At the altar of technology, we revel in our role as creators of posterity.
Then the unthinkable happens, and we lose it all. Of course after the initial despair we philosophize that life must go on. Most of the documents were unimportant anyway. Those that were important can probably be produced again. If they can’t, well, what are you gonna do?
But we are changed by the experience. Forever. Now at the back of our mind is the possibility that what we create can indeed disappear, and in ways we know nothing about- because let’s face it: as Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip posits, millions of ignorant people in the world are surviving on the technology developed by the few intelligent people.
So, even as we use the computer for more and more applications (be honest- how many of you actually have hard copies of photographs anymore?) we have a growing awareness that we could lose it all at a moment’s notice. Yet this does not stop us from treating the computer as the cure-all for our storage problems.
But maybe there is a quiet revolution going on somewhere. As the world churns out more documents and uses less paper, there is a collective intuition that we are in a quantity-over-quality era. We produce the documents, not to record the details of our lives for the future, but because we need to satisfy some immediate requirement. We draft reports of meetings, proposals, tender documents, letters… the list is endless. Yet how many of these documents are read in detail? They are there so that we can record that the work required of us has been done. No one cares today, and no one will care tomorrow. Even we don’t care about the things we write. Evidence of that is found in the fact that we still store it all in the computer, despite knowing that there is no guarantee of permanence, with all the goodwill- or backup- in the world.
What about photographs? Today I pick up a photo of my grandmother, taken in 1920. It is a link with the past, emphasizing similarities with and differences from the present. The last physical photo album I put together was in 2001. I remember this because I bought my first digital camera the year after. My memories are now hubristically stored in the very hard drive that I know can breathe its last any day. If I lose the photos, I lose all visual representation of the last 7 years of my life.
In 5 years, the technology I used to produce and store the photos may be incompatible with the new systems. How will I be able to view my photographs? While it is true that in the short term, new technology tends to iteratively subsume the old, history is replete with examples of paradigm shifts that rendered previously popular modes of activity completely and irredeemably obsolete.
Much has been made of the increasingly techno-savvy generations who become less adept at face-to-face interactions as they rely on their machines for company. However I would like to conclude this piece by sticking my neck out and predicting that as we produce more and more copies of our knowledge, we will feel less and less secure in the quality and permanence of this knowledge. This will lead to an increased reliance on the reassurance that face-to-face interactions provide. So don’t expect to attend fewer meetings at work as you produce more documents. If I were you, I would start taking orders for coffee and donuts!