Carr, Nicholas: When our culture’s past is lost in the cloud

Carr, Nicholas

When our culture’s past is lost in the cloud‘, Washington Post, 25 March 2016

A review of Abby Smith Rumsey’s book When We are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping our Future. (Perhaps significantly, some editions of Rumsey’s book are sub-titled ‘will Shape our Future. Something about the pace of change in that.) Carr starts by comparing a hard copy draft of the American Declaration of Independence (covered in amendments by famous men) with how it would be done today (no trace of tweaks and who had the great thoughts – unless someone thought to use ‘Track changes’).

Rumsey’s book is about cultural memory in the digital age. ‘As more and more of what we know, make and experience is recorded as vaporous bits in the cloud’, Rumsey says, ‘what exactly will we leave behind for future generations?’

Carr ruminates on Rumsey and sums up the issue as follows:

We’re now in the midst of the most far-reaching shift in media ever, as we rush to replace all manner of physical media with digital alternatives. The benefits are compelling. We’ve gained instant access to a seemingly infinite store of information. But there are losses, too. “Digital memory is ubiquitous yet unimaginably fragile,” Rumsey reports, “limitless in scope yet inherently unstable.” All media are subject to decay, of course. Clay cracks, paper crumbles. What’s different now is that our cultural memory is embedded in a complex and ever-shifting system of technologies. Any change in the system can render the record unreadable.

And there’s the problem if the control of data becomes concentrated in too few hands, and those obsessed with profit. Sounds kind of familiar.

Carr discusses his 2012 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In similar vein was the 2011 collection edited by John Brockman, Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The Net’s Impact on our Minds and Future.


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