Is History Coming to an End?
May be, say some who have seen the digital future
Forget Fukuyama; this is more serious. History as we know itor, to be more precise, the historical record as we know it and on which we must base our reconstructionsappears to be dying, argue some historians and technologists, who view with increasing consternation the growing mountains of unsorted electronic records accumulating at the portals of the National Archives and other document repositories. The transition to electronic communication and consequent replacement of many paper records with digital versions (especially by government agencies) has set up a technological minefield that may ultimately lead to the corruption, decay, and even destruction of the very records that historians depend upon, suggests David Talbot, chief correspondent of Technology Review, MIT's magazine of innovation, in an article, "The Fading Memory of the State," published in the July 2005 issue of the monthly.
"Today's history is born digital and dies young," writes Talbot, who points out that NARA's problems are two-fold. Not only will the National Archives have to deal in the near future with a tidal wave of digital records that are already accumulating at a rapid click, but will also have to deal with the even more knotty problem of these records being in multiple formats. Talbot quotes Ken Thibodeau, director of the National Archives' electronic-records program as saying "We operate on the premise that somewhere in the government they are using every software program that has ever been sold, and some that were never sold because they were developed for the government." NARA is taking steps to deal with the problemsboth current and futurestates Talbot. NARA is, for example, collaborating with the National Science Foundation to fund research at the San Diego Supercomputer Center to find ways of extracting data from superseded file formats. Harris Corporation and Lockheed Martin are competing to develop a design for a permanent Electronic Records Archive that can, among other things, absorb any of the 16,000 formats in use in the federal government.
But this project will take time (and a large sum of money) to implement. What of now? Talbot reports that the records of the 9/11 commission"a good deal of paper and 1.2 terabytes of digital information on computer hard disks and servers"was moved into the NARA's College Park facilty, "where it sits behind a door monitored by a video camera and secured by a black combination lock." The Archives' Thibodeau thinks that in 25 years no one may be able to read the stuff, writes Talbot, who adds, however, that "it doesn't have to be that way."
The preservation of digital records, problematic as it is, has been occupying the attention of scholars, librarians, and archivists for some time. The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has even produced a documentary film, Into the Future, a few years ago to examine the many related issues (see http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/1998/9804/9804FIL2.CFM); the Digital Library Federation (DLF), which operates under the administrative umbrella of the CLIR and which has NARA as one of its constituent members, has also been exploring the question of preserving digital information.
In a perceptive article entitled "Why Digitize?" that was published in the February 1999 issue of Perspectives, Abby Smith, director of programs at CLIR, pointed out that "Much is gained by digitizing, but permanence and authenticity, at this juncture of technological development, are not among those gains." Six years later, despite technological developments that seem to be outstripping even Moore's Law, we are perhaps no nearer solving the preservation problem. Smith also underlined another important problem with digital records:
Another reason that preservation goals are in some fundamental way challenged by digital imaging is that it is quite difficult to ascertain the authenticity and integrity of an image, database, or text when it is in digital form. How can one tell if a digital file has been tampered with and the content changed or falsified? Looked at from the traditional perspective of published or manuscript materials, it is futile even to try: there is no "original" with which to compare a suspect file. Copies can be deceptively faithful: one cannot tell the difference between the “original” output of a scan of the Declaration of Independence and one that is output four months later. In contravention of a core principle of archival authenticity, one can change the bit stream of a file and leave no record of it having been altered. That may not be important for a digital image of a well-known document like the Declaration of Independence, in which access to either the (analog) original or a good photographic image is easy enough to obtain for comparison’s sake. But anyone who has seen the digitally engineered commercial in which Fred Astaire can be seen dancing with a vacuum cleaner can readily understand the ease with which improbable digital occurrences can become “real” because we "see" them. After all, the evidence is before our eyes, and our eyes cannot detect a falsehood. It is our cognitive reasoning that detects that falsehood, not our eyes.
Anna Nelson, resident historian and adjunct professor at American University has also been grappling with these issues for some years. She thinks that historians should be concerned about electronic records and their preservation, but, she declares in an e-mail message to Perspectives, "I don't think we are losing history yet. In general we have not yet created a generation that can do without paper. Even students of 18 years do not like to read on the screen and continue to print reading matter. We will have paper around for a long time. I agree that we are probably losing the policy lines that tell us how policy was made, but our biggest enemy is not unknown e-mail; it is the delete key." Referring to the specific problems of the National Archives, Nelson points out that "if the federal government had created standards [for using computers], the Archives would not now be picking up the pieces." Nelson also argues that archivists and IT personnel should work together so that every federal agency has a system in place to distinguish between the trivial message and the important one.
But, of course, one historian's trivia may be another's all-important source. As one correspondent to TechnologyReview.com's forum on David Talbot's article argued, even the trivial messages about arranging lunches could hold important information for a future historian interested in mapping the intra-office networks of negotiation and equations of power.
The problems of preservation remain, therefore, and even multiply, as digitization proceeds ever more rapidly. The search for solutions is also proceeding apace. The Library of Congress has, for example, launched a National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP). The congressionally mandated program, which is partly supported by federal funding, has recently collaborated with the National Science Foundation to award grants totalling of $3 million to 10 university teams to undertake research on the long-term management of digital information (see http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/about/pr_050405.html).
The future of the past may well not be lost, therefore; but it would be wise, as Anna Nelson counsels, for historians to be concerned about the issues. This is an idea echoed also by AHA's vice president for research, Roy Rosenzweig (Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of History & New Media at George Mason University and director of the Center for History and New Media at the university) who declared, in a seminal survey of the issues (see "Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era," in the June 2003 issue of the American Historical Review), "If the past is to have an abundant future, . . . then historians need to act in the present."
(posted on July 14, 2005)
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