Rumsey Writes - Abby Smith Rumsey

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Augustus Petermann & David Milner, The Atlas of Physical Geography (detail). David Rumsey Map Collection
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When We are No More

How Digital Memory Will Shape Our Future

What is the future of human memory? What will people know about us when we are gone?

Our memory gives the human species a unique evolutionary advantage. Our stories, ideas, and innovations—in a word, our “culture”—can be recorded and passed on to future generations. With our enduring culture and restless curiosity we invented powerful recording technologies—from the printing press to photography—that both broadened access to knowledge and produced information inflation. To manage this data surplus, we invented libraries, archives, and museums: repositories of memory that tell us where we come from and define our future.

When We Are No More explores human memory from pre-history to the present. How did we get from the Paleolithic selfies painted on cave walls tens of thousands of years ago, to the temples of learning we call libraries, and the present day of zettabytes of data on servers in all formats, from books to films to scientific databases all stored in electronic bits.

The proliferation of information and the scarcity of human attention demands new ways of understanding memory: data storage is different from memory; what we know from neuroscience about the value of forgetting; and above all, why memory is about the future, not the past.

Abby Smith Rumsey is a historian of ideas focusing on how ideas and information technologies shape perceptions of history, of time, and of personal and cultural identity.  


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Sainte-Geneviève Library, Paris (La Collection/Jean-Claude N’Diaye)

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Chauvet Cave (Getty Images)

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Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive (AP Images/Ben Margot)