Blogs > Cliopatria > Ubiquitous Information and History

Jul 10, 2007 11:52 am

Ubiquitous Information and History

Charles Stross argues that the discipline of history is about to emerge into its full potential with the advent of the 21st Century information society and its capacity to record virtually everything and anything that human beings do.

Stross writes, "And what a mass of information it will be. For the first time ever, they'll be able to know who was where, when, and what they said; just what words were exchanged in smoky beer halls 30 years before the revolutions that haven't happened yet: who it was who claimed to be there when they founded the Party (but didn't join until years later): and where the bodies are buried.

They'll be able to see the ephemera of public life and understand the minutiae of domestic life; information that is usually omitted from the historical record because the recorders at the time deemed it insignificant, but which may be of vital interest in centuries to come.

For the first time ever, the human species will have an accurate and unblinking, unvarnished view of its own past as far back as the dark ages of the first decade of the 21st Century, when recorded history "really" began."

I take his point. But I'm a bit of a skeptic.

First, I remember an episode of the series Babylon 5 which turned on the main characters being able to query their data banks for the 19th Century street address of Jack the Ripper. That reflected a confidence not just in the data collection of the present, but of the future's capacity to collate all information about all past eras and make them readily available to any user with a simple natural-language query. No matter how capacious the data storage and processing capabilities of the future, you won't be able to search for information that never existed in the first place. Nor, without the advent of extremely sophisticated AI (which I think we should not assume is inevitable) will any user (historian or otherwise) be able to search for any information with a simple natural language query. Now and for the foreseeable future, to find something out about the past, you'll have to know something about that past before you search--the basic Catch-22 of research.

That Catch-22 is not relieved by ubiquitious information. In fact, its contradiction becomes fiercer and fiercer the more information we can readily access. If Stross is right, and much of the quotidian information about life in our times that historians can only guess at with regard to past eras will be accessible, making historical knowledge from that vast array of information will become more challenging, not less. The Stasi of East Germany had an astonishing range of information about the people of East Germany, so much so that in many ways they effectively knew less than many less totalitarian states do about their populations.

Stross is riffing to some extent off what David Brin has called for in his book The Transparent Society: a society where all information is available to all queries. My problem with Brin's scenario is that I think both the recording and accessing of information is likely to remain asymmetrical and unequal in even the most comprehensively "transparent" informational order that I can plausibly imagine. Maybe my life will be available in all its details to a 23rd Century historian. I doubt that the interior deliberations of the White House will be. I doubt that the meetings of insurgent cells in Iraq will be available for study. Power will find a way to evade the informational net when it needs to. And when information makes power (or confounds it), there will be every reason for people to create informational noise, to deceive not just the present but the future.

It may be that 23rd Century historians of everyday life will be in a dramatically better situation when they study the 21st Century: they won't have to guess about what we ate, about what our sex lives were like, about everything we did and thought. Or maybe not. Right now I know that many people watch "The Simpsons". I can only guess about what they think about "The Simpsons" when they watch it, whether they get all the jokes that I get and in the ways in which I get them. Knowing what people do doesn't relieve you of the extraordinary difficulties involved in knowing what it means that they do it. Even asking people directly, "What does that mean to you?" doesn't relieve you of that burden, in part because meaning doesn't have a final resolution. Consciousness is not part of the datasphere of the 21st Century, at least, not yet.

Lack of information is not really the biggest problem that historians face. History does not become more scientific, authoritative, powerful or persuasive as it approaches eras that are more and more dense in information.

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Nathanael D. Robinson - 7/12/2007

I have to ditto Manan on this. New media, new databases, etc., create more incentives to neglect old data rather than transfer it into new formats. Indeed, if I may take Nazi academic practices as a reference, the attempt to centralize and systematize all historical records created opportunities for those records to be lost and destroyed. Once I was even shown a picture of a bomb-damaged Cologne when I asked why particular files were not available. (Although I know someone who, at the National Archives in Paris, received a notice that the file he requested was destroyed during the war--even though it concerned events during the 1960s.)

Brandon Rose - 7/11/2007

A preponderance of information is helpful but it does not replace the burden on the historian in his or her role as interpreter of the past. In my own research at the Shoah Foundation for Visual History at USC I am confronted with over 57,000 Holocaust survivor testimonials that offer more information than I could ever synthesize in my lifetime. Searching through the archive requires constant referencing to secondary histories because of the Catch 22 which you describe. When something strikes my interest historical evidence is not the first place or the only place I turn. I think we all have our doubts about this digitalized world (though I am perhaps not as cynical as Andrew Keen and his The Cult of the Amateur) but only time will tell how useful this bottom-up digital conundrum will assist in our future understanding of the present. Regardless, I still cannot equate a well-written, reflective diary to the majority of personal blogs online let alone a myspace page.

Brandon Rose

Manan Ahmed - 7/11/2007

I have serious doubts that even the mass of information that exists today - the myspace pages, facebook profiles, emails across many servers, html pages, iPod libraries, digital photos - will survive the next 25 years - in its current form. Digital Content disappears and mutates far quickly than printed or carved content. And as information technologists, we don't seem to be doing much about creating viable Archives. So, there is that for a future historian to contend with.

I won't even bring up forward-media compatability.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/10/2007

I agree with your skepticism.

First, how much of this information will be true "recordings" of events as opposed to a multiplicity of accounts? For that matter, where will the line between recording and account lie in a digital universe, particularly if the trend toward informal shifting coalitions of reporters and researchers continues?

Second, your point about the difference in data access is a real one. If I recall correctly, one of the reasons that David Brin calls for a formal end to privacy is to minimize the selective privacy of the powerful.

Assuming that power will still buy privacy, then there will likely be an ever greater difference between the mass of accurate information concerning everyday life and the far more paltry archives of the powerful.

That might not be all bad. The very fact that the amount of information would be easier to master might keep some historians focused on power.

However, I am inclined to believe that the more information that is out there, the easier it will be for the powerful to hide their actions, either by traditional forms of secrecy or by misdirecting the attention of scholars and the public alike. The more information that is out there, the easier such misdirection will be.