Econtalk with Russ Roberts
San Francisco Chronicle
When We are No More
How Digital Memory will shape our future
Published March 1, 2016
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. Our enduring culture and restless curiosity have enabled us to invent powerful information technologies that give us invaluable perspective on our past and define our future. Today, we stand at the very edge of a vast, uncharted digital landscape, where our collective memory is stored in ephemeral bits and bytes and lives in air-conditioned server rooms. What sources will future generations turn to in 100–let alone 1,000 years–to understand our own time if all of our memory lives in digital codes that may no longer be decipherable?
When We Are No More explores human memory from pre-history to the present to shed light on the grand challenge we face today: the abundance of information and scarcity of human attention. Tracing the story from cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls, to movable type, books, the birth of the Library of Congress, and the explosion of evidence generated by the scientific and technical advances on the last two centuries, Rumsey weaves a compelling narrative of how humans have dealt with the problem of too much information throughout our history. From this history we can learn how we might begin solve the same problem for our digital future. Serving as a call to consciousness, When We Are No More explains why data storage is not memory; why forgetting is the first step towards remembering; and above all, why memory is about the future, not the past.
“What Oliver Sacks did for the physical mind, Abby Smith Rumsey is doing for our evolving digital mind—making the history and complexity of our collective memory vital to everyone.” —Brewster Kahle, Founder of the Internet Archive
“Rumsey takes us on a lucid and deeply thought-provoking journey into what makes the human species unique—the capacity to create external memory. This book will change how you think about our collective store of knowledge, and its future.” —Paul Saffo, Chair, Futures studies, Singularity University
“As pixels fly by on our multiplying screens, Abby Smith Rumsey reminds us that we have unwittingly committed our modern forms of expression to formats that are all too fragile, dependent on hardware and software that quickly become dated and unusable. This threatens not just a ‘digital dark age,’ but something much worse. With a kaleidoscopic view of history—from Sumerian tablets to the libraries of Montaigne and Jefferson—and a critical analysis of how our minds use recorded information, she warns us that without devoting more attention to digital preservation we will end up with a cultural disorder akin to Alzheimer’s, where we live in a troubling, constant present, with little ability to imagine the future. Ensuring perpetual access to our shared culture is thus one of the most pressing issues of our digital age, and this compelling, important book is a call and plan for doing so.” —Dan Cohen, Founding Director, Digital Public Library of America
“Abby Smith Rumsey addresses one of the most serious and as yet unresolved issues of the digital age in her eloquent discourse WHEN WE ARE NO MORE. In lucid prose, Rumsey traces the evolution of recorded memory, the basis of knowledge of the past, and the foundation of the understanding of the future. Since the advent of digital technology as the carrier of thought and experience, we have, as Rumsey relates, entered a precarious state in which our ability to preserve cultural legacy is profoundly threatened. This book is a thoughtful and urgent call to action that is essential reading for all who care about diversity, sustainability, and the advancement of knowledge. Digital memory presents a new challenge; Rumsey provides inspiring insights into the ways in which past challenges have been met and offers a compelling argument to drive the development of new ideas and solutions to this looming threat of inestimable loss.”—Sarah E. Thomas, Vice President for the Harvard Library and University Librarian