Abby Smith Rumsey on Remembering, Forgetting, and When We Are No More
Jun 13 2016

WhenWeAreNoMore.jpg You might think your tweets on Twitter belong to you. But in 2010, the Library of Congress acquired the entire archive of Twitter. Why would such a majestic library acquire such seemingly ephemeral material? Historian Abby Smith Rumsey, author of When We Are No More, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about this decision of the Library of Congress and the general challenge of how to cope with a world when so much of what we write and read is digital. Subjects discussed include what we can learn from the past, the power of collective memory, what is worth saving, and how we might archive our electronic lives so that we and those who come after us can find what we might be looking for.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Tom Cargill
Jun 13 2016 at 1:06pm

With respect to searching for photos by date:

Is it useful to characterize a timestamp-based
database search as artificial intelligence?
Surely, this debases the notion of AI. If this
is AI, what would be an example of software
that is not AI?

Cowboy Prof
Jun 13 2016 at 1:54pm


Interesting discussion up to the point where the guest asserted “aggravated by the capitalist economy, I think–that we are very short-term focused. The whole idea of thinking about the long term, about planning 20, 30, 40 years out for infrastructure–it used to be one of the strengths of the United States. And it’s collapsed, mightily. And it seems that it’s totalitarian governments such as the Chinese who are better able to plan long-term infrastructure to address such things. Even if they choose not to.” (From transcript above.)

If I remember my history correctly, the GOSPLAN’s of the USSR and all that leaping forward the PRC did was not as beneficial in the long-term as one might have imagined. The “even if they choose not to” is the really critical phrase here, which prompts us to consider institutional incentives in authoritarian planning. I am often quite troubled to see intelligent people favoring authoritarian forms of decision-making.

Also, I was concerned about the absolute certitude about anthropogenic climate change, particularly in the context of remembering the past. I was recently at the Museum of Natural History in Victoria where they had a large climate timeline wherein the superimposed a flat line of our current global temperature (averaged on past decade) on top of measurements for the past few thousand years. The current line was more often than not below the various global temperatures in the past. Moreover, the retrospective temperature line revealed radical “short-term” (decadal) swings. I just thought it was curious to be concerned about being too hot when we were actually below average on the long-term temperature trend AND that variation in climate is the norm over history. I don’t see why so many smart people consider current climate change assertions to be a strong certainty.

Jun 13 2016 at 7:43pm

(Still listening, but had to comment quickly)

Yes! Hamilton! I hope it was a $1000 experience.

Jun 14 2016 at 11:26am

Hi, regarding emulation. This isn’t a dream, it has been used for decades. Recently it’s used as part of the daily workflow for developers of mobile platforms.

Emulators exist for many computers, including Russ’ 1985 Mac sitting in his basement (

Some of the most popular emulators are for Nintendo and other gaming consoles from the 20th century.

The difficulties with regard to emulation are two fold, one: it’s a technically deep field requiring nearly complete knowledge of the system, and two: wrangling intellectual property and copyright infringement issues. If in the future, we find our digital history decaying irreversibly, it will be because the IP owners have closed their systems to enthusiasts, not because of the technical difficulties involved with emulation.

Jun 15 2016 at 2:32pm

Derek – This guest’s grasp of the technology she talks about is really, really bad.

I stopped the podcast (first time ever) when the guest said that there’s turmoil because storage prices aren’t decreasing as fast as they have been. I guess its true that the decrease in prices is slowing. Its asymptotically approaching zero. If they decreased any faster, suppliers would have to start paying us to take all these hard drives off their hands.

Daniel Barkalow
Jun 15 2016 at 7:59pm

I think it’s interesting to consider the increasing adoption of revision control systems for documents beyond computer programs as a possibility for how we will come to manage digital information. It seems to me entirely plausible that, a decade from now, we’ll not only have the first draft of some law, but also each revision done by each person, along with who incorporated other people’s changes into their own version, and the ordering of modifications; possibly even comments on the changes indicating the intent of making those changes, and notes made by people reviewing each other’s work. We’d also be able to see an annotated view of the final document with the origin and history of each bit of text surviving in it, as a way to get into the history.

This is a tool that computer programmers have been using for years in its current form, and decades in earlier forms, but it’s becoming more widely adopted recently as it has come to be seen as less of an exotic and difficult tool and more a normal part of the digital world.

Jim Kee
Jun 18 2016 at 1:27pm

“British imperialism is way out of fashion these days…” I had to chuckle. Well said, ol’ chap.

Jim Kee
Jun 18 2016 at 1:48pm

Also had to chuckle when Ms. Rumsey cited climate change denial, the evils of capitalism and the wonders of authoritarian China all in one take. I couldn’t wait to hear how Russ would respond. With class, as always.

Needless to say, she underwhelmed in certain ways, including those technology fumbles noted above.

don rudolph
Jun 18 2016 at 1:51pm

Guest: No. They’re in a position to. Russ: Yeah, they’re in a position to. But that’s so not enough. That’s so insufficient…

This extreme optimism about the the good governments COULD POTENTIALLY DO, is the major flaw in peoples thinking. When my oldest son was sixteen we should have been able to leave him at home with some cash and go on vacation. Experience had shown us he would throw a big party, trash the house, spend the cash the first day on the party. When we think of government we should think of teenagers.

Robert Swan
Jun 20 2016 at 9:10pm

Cowboy Prof has nicely covered most of my thoughts on this talk. That was indeed a “Whoa!” moment in a mostly agreeable conversation.

I’ll add that Dr Smith Rumsey is pinning her hopes on the wrong thing if she thinks important medical breakthroughs will cascade forth as soon as we get well anonymised medical records. The epidemiological approach to medicine has been largely sucked dry and much of today’s supposed progress is akin to noting that the mortality rate for active soldiers in Iraq was lower than that of the U.S. male population. Ergo draft all men into the army and post them to Iraq — it’ll be good for them.

Proper progress will come from researchers who get out of their broad-brushing stats software and try to understand individuals and the variations between them. I suppose this is another case of top-down vs. bottom-up.

Jun 21 2016 at 2:19pm

Just want to thank you, Russ, and your guest Abby Smith Rumsey for an amazing podcast! I would go as far as to say that it has been the best during this year (this is only so far I can remember).

A lot of fresh new ideas you can only hear from people outside the econ profession.

Mike Laursen
Jun 30 2016 at 11:08pm

Besides emulation being something that exists and is commonly used, we have well worked out, archivable file formats such as TIFF, PDF/A, as well as plenty of open source, common formats from jpeg to MP3.

Comments are closed.


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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: May 31, 2016.] Russ: So, you've done a lot of practical work on the question of how to preserve digital content with the Library of Congress, the National Science Foundation Task Force. But you open your book with a very non-digital piece of America's heritage, which is the Declaration of Independence. What did you learn from how people react to seeing that artifact? Guest: Well, at the time--it was 1997 and I was working at the Library of Congress, which holds the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. As you may know, there's an official document of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on permanent display at the National Archives. And that's what most tourists and most people see, when they think of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But naturally those documents weren't born whole out of the heads of the Founders. They were actually crafted by men who were working against time, in the case of the Declaration of Independence, to actually come out with a statement in a short period of time that would express something that turns out in retrospect we understand to be completely revolutionary in ideas. The rough draft of the Declaration of Independence is at the Library of Congress, and we were displaying it during this exhibition we put together in 1997. It's in four pages, and it's hand-written; and it's in Thomas Jefferson's handwriting. So, there was a committee put together to draft this, and naturally they made the youngest and probably the most eloquent of their members, Thomas Jefferson, draft this. And he wrote on it; and you can see, it's very heavily marked up by other committee members, who included Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. And when we were showing these documents to tourists and other people visiting, and we put the four pages, the originals, in a case behind bulletproof glass--so this big, kind of ark-like think that it was encased in--people would look for what they know on the first page. They look for this phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." And it's actually quite startling, but that's not what Jefferson wrote. What he wrote is that the truths are sacred and undeniable. And those words are inked out in black ink by Ben Franklin, who then put in the words that we know today. And it so startled people that it opens up the whole story about how decisions are made in the political environment. And so the whole process of democracy can be unpacked by people just looking at that single artifact. And what struck me about that was the power of the artifact itself--the physical presence. And also that it reveals something about the nature of democracy itself, the rough and tumble of negotiation. Now, these were not new thoughts to me because I'm a historian; and it wasn't new to me of course to see our citizens and visitors being surprised by looking at a draft of something that they thought they knew. But what struck me and my colleagues at the time in 1997, was that digital information was already being used in government offices for email. And it occurred to me, because we took various people around such as Newt Gingrich and Rehnquist and Bill Clinton, that their documents were now in digital form: there would be no rough drafts of anything. And so it would be very hard for people to understand very much about the drama of Congress and the Presidency, in 1997. And so I was just beginning to think about, 'So, what would my successor in 2097 show to visitors to the Library of Congress about the 21st century?' Russ: Well, there is--the modern equivalent of that document, of course, is a Google doc that's been commented on by multiple authors. But they tend to evaporate. They don't stick around. Guest: Yes. And I must say--it's essentially a Track Changes. But I have never seen anybody oohing and ahhing over a screen shot or even a printout of a Google doc. And the truth is that one of the things that was so powerful about this artifact was that it was 200 years old, over 200 years old. And we might be able to have the disk or the hard drive, the server on which that Google doc written today is preserved, but we will have to actually emulate old-fashioned technology to read it. So, the very nature of authenticity and some physical connection with the past will be lost no matter what we do with our technologies.
5:58Russ: So, one of the charms and novelties of your book is that the explosion of information that we are living through is actually not a new problem. We, of course, feel like it is--at least those of us over a certain age. But you point out we've been here before. So, explain, and talk about what we can learn from that fact. Guest: Well, just what you say, and the fact that we identify ourselves as having--let's say, you and I were born print natives. And we are making this transition into the digital world. In 20 years time when the world is full of born digitals it will not seem quite as overwhelming. But more to the things I talk about in the book, what I sketch out is the history of information or memory technologies, the technologies we created to keep our thoughts and knowledge alive over generations. We want to sort of cheat death by keeping our knowledge alive across generations, which other species cannot do; and we do this through technologies. And in the old days--and we are talking about just a hundred years ago--we would actually commit our thoughts to these durable physical objects. The earliest technologies we know of date from Mesopotamia, the cuneiforms. Which, incidentally, still exist; and we can still read them. If you can read Semitic languages, you can read a cuneiform even though it's thousands and thousands of years old. But the desire that humans have, because we're so curious, to know more and more and to preserve what we know and to accumulate knowledge so that we can start each generation with a sort of full legacy of knowledge and move it forward in time to the work that we do, all of that is dependent on these technologies that hold our knowledge for us. And there's been a drive, from the beginning of time, I think, when we first invented these technologies, to create more , to create technologies of memories that have greater capacity. So we go from cuneiforms to papyrus to print; and we go from, actually from manuscript pages to printing, which greatly increases the capacity of humans to print and circulate knowledge, and to read. But with every generation there is a new innovation. And I talk about this in some length in the book, when it comes to the printing revolution. That, the new technology is very rapidly adopted because there were appetites for communication. And we go through a temporary but quite excruciating period of what I call information inflation, where we are printing so much, in the case of moveable type we suddenly printed so much, that people didn't know what to do with it all. And furthermore, we didn't understand its core value. So, one of the things about manuscripts is it was so incredibly expensive and labor intensive to produce one manuscript that there was this kind of built-in filter of quality. You knew that somebody had invested decades of time and money to produce a manuscript. So, you knew by cultural value that it was very valuable. With print, suddenly there was a huge change in the scale of information. And people couldn't understand the value of what they read, how trustworthy it was. You know, people really did think, if it's printed, it must be true: why would they print something that wasn't true? Russ: Like Wikipedia. Guest: Yeah. Wikipedia. Russ: It must be true. It's in Wikipedia. Guest: Yes. And much of what's in Wikipedia is true. Russ: Correct. Guest: And of course you can determine that by looking at the edited pages. But there is this general sense that it takes us a while to understand the value when there is this incredible inflation. Incidentally, one of the things that's very clear from looking at past information inflations is that the very earliest adopters, they come in, basically there are two tribes that are very early adopters. The first are the pornographers--we saw this with the Internet and we certainly saw it in the Renaissance and Reformation. And the other are ideological extremists. We saw that among the anti-Papal dissidents--we now call them Protestants, but at the time they were quite--they were heretics and some of them advocated and acted in behaviors that were very similar to what ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is doing now. And of course we see today that it's the ideological extremists--religious extremists in many cases--who are soon to be most adept at using information technologies, the new ones, to spread their ideas. But this, too, passes over time.
10:55Russ: So, I don't want to sound too much like a Philistine, because actually I totally agree with you and I love the preservation of the past; and I love archives; and we'll talk later about their value. But there's a certain viewpoint, very common I think among scientific people, economists to some extent, which is: 'Well, I really don't have to read anything before 1970 or 1950 or 2000, because we've figured all that stuff out; and we've got that in the new literature. It's sifted through all the bad stuff. And what we have now is the truth. So, no reason to read Newton; no reason to read Archimedes; no reason to read Menger in economics or even Keynes, because we've taken out all that stuff. And, you know, that's just dusty old history. So, all those cuneiform clay tablets--who cares if we saved them? We don't need them.' What's your response to that? Guest: Well, I wouldn't say that it's Philistine. I think it's perfectly natural for people in any given time to think that they have a greater knowledge of the world than the people who proceed them. Or I should say, at least in our culture. You must know, as I'm sure many people do, that in many cultures they revere the past much more than the present. So, these--there are cultures that have these myths of the golden age; that everything has gone downhill since that golden age. But we live in a time, in a culture, in the West, now, which is very future oriented and really believe in progress. And we believe somehow that progress means that what we add to knowledge means that we actually supersede previous knowledge. So, as you say, why bother confronting Newton on his own terms? Actually reading the man, as opposed to relying on what past generations have extrapolated from what Newton said. And I think people now realize that one of the things about reading Newton that he actually was a religious mystic. I mean, actually confronting Newton and Galileo on their own terms is itself quite sobering for scientists and those who believe that science is all about rationality. So, I would say there is something humbling about confronting the past on its own terms. But much more to the point, I think, is that there are--there is some detail about this in the book--there is now actually some good scientific evidence that in terms of biological diversity, when species go through extremely rapid changes in their habitat, for example, and I think this is happening for all species, including humans, right now, that the greater the diversity of their gene pool, or in our case a greater diversity of cultural preserved knowledge, the more we have a chance to actually come up with appropriate solutions. So, one example would be--and this is an historical example--but, I think of old knowledge, particularly cultural knowledge which we've decided is no longer relevant, that we've superseded, can be actually extraordinarily useful for us at moments like this, at moments of crises. So, in the Renaissance and Reformation, when people have decided that the unified world of Christianity and Papal authority was breaking apart--that just wasn't the world that we needed any more, that world had failed--they looked around for previous models of world views. And that's when they went back to the past and discovered Roman and Greek learning. And without that search through old, and sometimes moldy documents from the Greeks and the Romans, we actually in the West would never have rediscovered democracy. We would never have reinvented democracy and republican government. So I think scientific knowledge that is fact-based, that is based on the true evidence, that's a different kind of truth value and judgment about truth. But when it comes to political, ethical, and moral issues, there really is no such thing as knowledge that gets superseded by the present. And sometimes models from the past can tell us so much more about ourselves than the present, partly because they've been distilled through time. And their moral and ethical clarity, it's just distilled to something we can understand. Russ: You write,
It was not a technical innovation that set us on the present course, but an idea. That was the radically transformative idea that the universe and all that exists is no more and no less than the material effect of material causes.
And that is, you argue, is the kick starter of our information, the profusion of information that we have. But at the same time, you write about the importance of the emotional, which I think a lot of modern listeners to this program will find somewhat troubling. So, defend emotion. Guest: Well, I think that a lot of the people you are talking about, particularly those who are in the social sciences--sometimes scientists are less like this, physical scientists, life scientists are less like this--but social scientists confuse emotion with irrationality. And they are actually quite different. And the best neuroscience tells us that in fact reason itself, rationality, springs from fundamentally emotionally laden value judgments. And biologically, we don't make a priori decisions about what is valuable and what is ethical. We actually have emotional, physical reactions to these things. And this is very well documented: that we post-hoc rationalize as a moral decision. There is a lot of rethinking about economics and the rational economic man or woman based on this recent science about the way that people make decisions under emotional stress and then go back and attach rational thinking. Russ: Sure. Guest: I think Kahneman, Daniel Kahneman, does a really good job, I think, of just helping us distinguish between what he calls fast thinking and slow thinking: that we react--and we can actually invoke rationality--to refine the reactions that we have. But biologically, we are hardwired to make instantaneous decisions about what is valuable[?] and what isn't. And rationality can't short-circuit that. We can come in later and rationalize and think more reasonably about our decisions. But emotions are where things begin. It's what nature endowed us with in order to understand how to live. It's a survival mechanism.
17:58Russ: I love this quote--it's a little bit lengthy but it's really beautiful and gets at this somewhat. You write:
What this means for the digital age is that data is not knowledge, and data storage is not memory. We use technology to accumulate facts about the natural and social worlds. But facts are only incidental to memory. They sometimes even get in the way of thoughtful concentration and problem solving. It is the ability for information to be useful both now and in the future that counts. And it is our emotions that tell what is valuable for our survival and well-being. When distracted--for example, by too many bright shiny things and noisy bleeping devices--we are not able to learn or develop strong reusable memories. We fail to build the vital repertoire of knowledge and experience that may be of use to us in the future. And it is the future that is at stake. For memory is not about the past. It is about the future.
So, comment on that quote, and expand on this idea that knowledge is more than just facts. Guest: Well, first I want to just back up a little bit and talk about why I argue that memory is not about the past; it is about the future. And I say that as both an historian and someone who has looked pretty deeply into what neuroscience says about why we have such prodigious memory, and what is unique about human memories as opposed to animal memories. We accumulate a lot of knowledge about the world: we know our environment, so that we can react in real time, instantaneously, without having to learn everything all over again. The whole point of accumulating knowledge--and this is true for all species--is to be able to anticipate what might be happening the next minute, the next hour, the next day. And humans have the unique ability--we think it's unique--to be able to think retrospectively and prospectively, not just second-by-second, but weeks, even decades and millennia forwards and backwards. So, we accumulate all this knowledge. We build this mental model of the world. Again, this is very well documented by neuroscientists. We have a mental model of the world by which we actually go into any situation and we anticipate what we are going to see. And the brain, which is assaulted by so much information all the time, without doubt it ignores, it dumps anything that looks familiar and instead focuses on what might be new in an environment. That's why--[?] is able to figure out what threats are, for example--so, something new. So, what this has to do with our inability to attend very much, what we perceive as our shortening attention span in the digital age, is that we haven't got the filters yet in our brains to filter out such an assault on our brains--such a demand for our attention all the time that digital devices, the demand of us, essentially. And that's why I talk about these "bleeping devices". We need to be able to take in a certain amount of information, and then we need to be able to process it. I mean, scientists have said this processing of short term memory, dumping what's not valuable and turning it into valuable long-term memory--that can take--well, we have to have a good night's sleep; a lot of it happens when we sleep. And sometimes it can take up to months. So, we know very well that people whose attention is constantly interrupted, just like their sleep is interrupted, have chronic problems with developing long-term memories. And in the case of, severe cases--and I talk about this in the book--people like that actually cannot even develop a sense of--they don't understand cause and effect. They don't understand narrative. They actually feel kind of lost. They can't figure out how life works, because there's no pattern that emerges. They can't--there's no ability to extrapolate a general meaning from any particular. And that's a very serious memory affliction. And, you know, that happens to individuals. But culturally, this culture of distraction means that we are going to be very crippled in understanding long term patterns in this digital age. Russ: I don't know-- Guest: In some ways--I'm sorry; go ahead. Russ: No, go ahead. Guest: I was going to say that, you know, the reason that as we move ever more quickly into the future, because so much is changing so rapidly, we actually need good memory from the past even more. Because it's only the past that we use as the raw material for our conjectures about what can happen into the future. And this is the great thing about the engineering industry, is: We learn natural laws through science, through that wonderful materialist science we were talking about; we understand the laws of nature; they are quite predictable. And so we use those laws to predict how something in the real world will turn out: how much weight their bridge will bear. And in the cases of space voyages we have the team of people who explored Pluto working for 18, 20 years in a kind of group mental time travel trying to understand what would happen at each stage of that exploration into the future. It's a phenomenal feat of human memory, and it happens in part through our technologies, but also just through our ability to do mental time travel. Which for us will be robbed--we will lose that ability--if we do not have a good long-term memory.
23:39Russ: So, I think the challenge here, for those of us at least straddling both ages--I don't know what it's like for our children, who, as you point out earlier have a very different experience of this digital world. But it's very tempting to spend one's day in the river of the Internet, just bouncing back and forth between Twitter, Facebook, your email, your messages--and not really paying attention. And I think we say to ourselves, 'Well, you know, I've got it all stored. In fact, when I have an idea, I just put it in Evernote. Or, I've got that picture in the Cloud. I've got it on Flickr, or I've got it in Google Photos. So I'm saving everything, actually.' And in fact I'm saving so much more than my parents saved. Now, my parents have passed on to me, or my grandparents passed on to me, you know, a couple of dingy black-and-white photos, or color photos in the early days that are kind of fading. We are giving our kids, the richest set of preserved memories you could possibly imagine. My two thoughts are: Well, if you don't really think about them, they are not really memories. And the second thought is your issue, one of the issues you talk about, which is: How do we preserve those in a way that's useful and valuable, not just to ourselves or our children but to the collective memory of humanity? And it's kind of a big problem. Guest: Yeah. And I do believe that really good memory requires the art of forgetting. There's a lot that we take in every day that we cannot and should not remember. And one of the temptations of our smartphone and smart machine technology is to capture every moment for memory. And as you can tell, yourself: with too many memories it all becomes a big ocean of data that we drown in rather than swim in and float in and enjoy. But, you know, I've been thinking a lot about how we deal with this dilemma of the scale of data. How do we find something meaningful in all of that? And as long as we use this model that you and I grew up with, that we do it manually, page by page, that will never work. We have to keep in mind that we cannot read machine code. We can read our grandparents' letters, but we will not be able to, and our grandchildren will not be able to take our smartphone and look at it and open it up and read anything. It's all a code. It's just not eye-legible. But machines will be reading this. Russ: Maybe. I mean, as you point out, the technology changes very quickly. I've got a 1985 Mac in my basement that I can't bear to throw away. It has files on it from my 1985 year. I'd like to look at them, kind of. But I don't even know if I can turn it on any more. I don't know if it works. And certainly I can't--the idea of porting them into modern technology is way beyond, say, digitizing my photos. Guest: Yeah, that's right. It's profoundly true, that a lot of the stuff, especially in the first couple of decades of this digital age, will be lost. I mean, in my opinion, it will take a good 20 or 30 years for people to understand how to stabilize this data over time and develop a technology people have been talking about for a long time--emulation. In which we are able to recreate an obsolete hardware/software environment in which we can read old data. It's a dream that technologists have talked about for quite a long time. And I hear from some people that we are close to breaking it--we're close to getting there--and from others, not. But the question of how do we read so much data at scale--I mean, now we know we can read data at scale, large-scale data like retrospective oceanographic information. We can put our machines to work looking for patterns. You know, I could imagine a scenario in which our personal memories are read by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren through these machines that ask it for certain kinds of patterns to make sense. So they don't slog through everything we've saved: it brings up the kinds of things that answer their questions. But I don't know. It's a difficult challenge. And one of the challenges I think is that the people in charge of developing these technologies don't actually ask these questions yet. Russ: It's true. I just mention one thing that fascinates me: I have, I don't know, 15 or 20,000 photographs on my hard-drive. These are not taken by my cellphone but actually taken with what used to be known as a camera. Which perhaps in 10 years when people are listening to this episode I hope is still available, by the way. But maybe they won't know it--they'll have heard of them but they won't have actually seen one. So, photographs that I love, that I crafted, that I developed digitally or in ways that were beautiful or interesting, or that chronicled an experience. And I keep them on my hard drive, and sometimes I upload them onto a backup disk drive. And I'm thinking, 'Why am I doing this? I don't even look at them. My kids aren't going to want to wade through 15,000 of them. And at the same time, Google Photo just automatically just does interesting things to my photographs. I'll get a note from Google Photo saying: 'Remember this day.' And it will go back, it will find a day 5 years ago when I was on vacation in New York City and took a, I don't know, 800 photographs that day; and it takes 10 of them that I kept and liked or developed; and somehow figures out that they are interesting. And it causes me to go back and remember that experience in a way I never would without that artificial intelligence working in the background. Because I'm not going to scroll through my 15,000 photographs to find that weekend I spent in New York City. So, it's, as you say, I think smart technology is going to do some interesting things to help us sift through it. Guest: Yeah. You were mentioning one of the challenges. Thinking ahead, is how much data can we store? That's a separate issue from how much data can we handle, in terms of making sense of. But the storage industry now has gone through a real turmoil, because storage is not getting any cheaper, according to some of the technologists I know-- Russ: Yeah; more is lost, slowing down, it appears. Guest: Yeah. It is. So there may be natural limits to how much data we gather--not to how much we gather but to how much we end up preserving. At some point we have to have some filtering or winnowing mechanism kick in. Again, I think this is one of the--at least based on my experience as a historian--this is a perfectly natural period of time we are going through when we don't understand how to keep what's valuable and how to keep from losing that. It happened, for example, you mention film, for example. Eighty percent of the silent films have been lost forever, because they were viewed at the time as entertainment. Of no cultural value whatsoever. And the sheer cost of trying to preserve nitrate film, which as you may know is explosive--it can blow up; it's got TNT (Trinitrotoluene) in it--they just didn't see any point in it. And now, of course, we really regret that, not because we want to watch old movies but because that has such--they capture such incredibly important information. Inadvertently. How people dressed. How they moved. What buildings looked like. And that's why people can argue about the value of Twitter; but we won't know the value of Twitter for a very long time. Russ: Yeah, it's a great--I just want to say in defense of Buster Keaton that we could lose all of it as long as we kept Buster Keaton on the silent film thing. But I take your point about history. That is valuable.
32:07Russ: But I want to--Twitter was my next question. Because you mentioned in the book, which is just shocking--we could spend the rest of the time, which we won't--but we could spend the rest of the time talking about the fact that Twitter, if I'm getting this correct, gave 2006 through 2010, or 4 or 5 years of tweets to the Library of Congress. Which--there are so many things to say about that. Including: Why? And who owns those tweets? Aren't they mine? Which you of course deal with all of those issues in your book. So, talk about that, and why Twitter actually could be valuable. Guest: Well, Twitter could be valuable--well, let me put it this way. All the question when it was announced, that Twitter and the Library of Congress had reached an agreement that they would do some archiving--and it's together, that they would do some archiving together, how to archive the tweets--there were two reactions. One was like, 'This is garbage. Why is the Library of Congress, that has Thomas Jefferson's papers, keeping Twitter?' And the other was by people who use Twitter, was, 'Oh, my God. How can they give my data away?' So, they didn't realize that of course they don't control their data any more than you control your personal email on Gmail. I mean, and this is one of the things that we need to deal with [?]-- Russ: You think you do. Guest: Yeah. You think you do. Well, it's very deceptive because it's your information. But it's a commercial company that allows you to give--"give it away." And they monetize it. So that's a whole 'nother discussion. But it was only within 6 months or something after the announcement of the gift or the cooperation agreement that the Arab Spring began: Tahrir Square in which most major newspaper outlets in the United States were getting live reporting of what was happening in Tahrir Square. So people began to understand that Twitter could also be the vehicle for contemporary documentation of political and other events. The way television used to be. The point is that it's a mixed bag. These platforms, like the web, can carry garbage; and they can carry very important scientific and cultural information. That's the challenge, I think, Russ: how do we sort the wheat from the chaff? But the point of the Library of Congress collecting this is that--and working with Twitter, is that if we don't experiment now on how to deal with this kind of data, then somebody will curse us in a hundred years, saying 'Why didn't they do that? Didn't they understand the value of that kind of data stream?' Russ: And of course, hard to know, as you say, what's important or not, so the temptation is just to save everything.
35:03Russ: So, I want to turn to that question. You write,
Collective memory of humanity is dependent on two things: a durable medium on which to record an image, text, map, or musical score; and an institution, some organization that takes responsibility for the care and handling for generations into the future.
So, I just want to mention, the question I want to ask you to talk about is who should run these organizations? I work at the Hoover Institution; it has one of the most extraordinary archives in the world of all kinds of interesting diplomatic, historical, personal correspondence of folks. My favorite example is I've held in my own hands, encased in plastic, of course, postcards that Keynes and Hayek sent to each other about a submission that Hayek had to an economics journal that Keynes was the editor of. And that was thrilling for me. I wasn't doing any serious research, although I could have been. But that was just exhilarating, to imagine that postcard being written and to touch it, at least even just to look at it. Seeing it digitized would be almost as good. My son spent a few weeks this past month as an intern at the Holocaust Museum. And they get a constant stream of photographs, diaries, artifacts; and of course they save most of it, because they're not sure what will be important to historians in the future. And similarly, Hoover saves as much as they can of so many things, because they don't know. And now there's physical limitations of space. But you raise the question of who should be responsible for saving those things. The Library of Congress is one model. But these private institutions, like the Hoover Institution, are also not monetizing these assets. They are simply dedicated to storing them and making them available to scholars, and increasingly to the public. So, what are your thoughts on that? Guest: Yes. Well, one of the things that is very true is that these organizations that span multiple generations are the only things that keep memory alive, [?] our entire cultural heritage. Without them, we wouldn't have these things. This is the stewardship across generations that's so vital for our collective memory. I don't think people understand how much of what we take for granted now has actually been very carefully maintained, curated, and sorted by generations of people. It doesn't have to be private or public. What it has to be--the organization has to be focused on the long term, serving both short term research needs, perhaps, but also ensuring that people in future generations will have access to it. One of the wonderful things about these organizations is that they have a very different time horizon than individuals. And most importantly, and this is what we focused on with the National Science Foundation Task Force on the economics of archiving--most importantly, they really play a vital role in a capitalist market society. Commerce has very little incentive for keeping any of its assets, cultural assets. Like, film studios produce movies that are part of our cultural heritage. They have very little incentive or means to preserve that material on behalf of the future for the public, once those assets cease to make money for them. And so, the way that we've had so much privately created cultural content last for so long is by having the creators moving those assets, the culture, into these long-term institutions that are really--they look very stodgy and they are very conservative by nature--libraries, museums, archives. But that's their point. They are actually supposed to be conservers. They are supposed to conserve, and take in what is valuable, and keep it intact. So there's an abiding tension between the commerce of making, creating, and circulating culture and knowledge and then the obligation that this knowledge be kept available for generations. That's why the Founders created copyright--for only 14 years, of course--but they created copyright to give people incentives to create but to make sure that they couldn't monopolize that information, that knowledge, forever. It's just something that--the things that worked well in the infrastructure that's handled physical objects, that doesn't work for the digital age. And I spend a fair amount of time in the book pointing out why it's different. But also saying that this is part of the task of our generation and the next two generations--is to rebuild these institutions to handle the scale, and to reform copyright and licensing agreements so this material endures for the future; and to build archives, private or public, that sustain this material and make it available into the future. Russ: I just want to mention the British Museum, which I recently saw, is called Mankind's Attic, which is an interesting metaphor for this problem, these challenges, right? Because I think human beings tend to throw things in their attic or basement, "just in case." And the British did this for 300 years or so, maybe a little longer. And having visited the museum recently for the first time, I was just struck by the unintended positive consequence of British imperialism. British imperialism is way out of fashion these days; but because of it, and the belief that we should save stuff, the British Museum is an extraordinary chronicle of human activity: culture, war, art, etc. And we live in a time when, as you mention earlier, religious extremism [?] as something as the Taliban work actively to destroy such artifacts. What are your thoughts on that? Guest: Well, there's nothing more horrifying than seeing a war against a people being waged by the destruction of their cultural record, their cultural history. We saw this in the Balkans when the Library in Sarajevo was torched, as if somehow the Bosnians could be effaced from the planet by having their entire history effaced. So, as someone who spent many formative years living in the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and experiencing what it is like to have a regime control the entire story told about the past, to me the question of our cultural and collective memory, it had a technical side, Russ, but it's profoundly moral. It's fundamentally a moral issue, a moral obligation to the next generation that they have at least as much access to the past as we did. We inherited many things, a heritage of information and knowledge from our predecessors and we need to hand that on intact, even if we have to fudge it during this period of digital abundance, digital sort-of vertigo. It's interesting to look at all the turmoil on American campuses--and actually on British campuses as well--about students who are saying: Who gets to tell the story of the past? And what story is that? So you see this agitation on campuses this year about the names of buildings, for example. And it's because we now have people being solicited--being actively recruited, minorities and under-represented people, to become part of this educational system. They come on campus; they are 18, 19; they are preparing for the rest of their lives; and they don't see any of their own personal past on campus. They have to ask themselves: What am I doing here? Russ: Do I belong? Guest: Do I even belong here? Russ: For sure. Guest: Yeah, so you can see--it's very touching for me to see activism about the historical record, even if it seems extreme and misguided to some people. These are young people, after all, and they are basically claiming--there's a wonderful example that, without knowledge of my own history, without it being visible here on campus, it's like saying I don't belong here. Russ: Yeah, well, I just saw Hamilton yesterday--was it yesterday? Two days ago. Seems like yesterday. And of course that musical, part of it is about who tells your story. And Alexander Hamilton's story is less told than some of the others. Aaron Burr, his story is told in a certain way, because of the way things turned out that might have turned out very differently in terms of what we think of when we think of these historical figures. And it is important. And it's part of our identity.
44:23Russ: Which is maybe a nice transition to the next thing I wanted to ask you, which is about Montaigne, the French essayist. You devote quite a bit of time to him. He's a very interesting human being, of course. But one might ask: Why is he in your book? So, why is he important? How does that fit in? Guest: Well, Montaigne's in my book partly because I love Montaigne, and it's wonderful to talk about him. But he--and for those who don't know about him-- Russ: In[?] fashion [?]-- Guest: Right. Well, but it's also very difficult to tell such a comprehensive history as I do in relatively short form simply by ticking off [?] major events. So I did try to tie in the history of various information inflation, information technology revolution, by telling the story of people who lived through them. And in this case I chose Montaigne, partly because--he lived in the 1500s; and he was brought up as a print native. And he lived through all of the bad side of what happens when the world falls apart and there was a century of very vicious religious wars between the various Protestant sects among themselves and the Catholics. And Montaigne was a man who, in the manuscript age, would have written a lot of letters to his family, and ruminated about the meaning of life and himself. But since he grew up in the age of print, he actually printed these ruminations, which he called Essays. And he talks about why he wrote Essays, in part because he had lost his friends and writing was a way of continuing his conversation with his dead friends. But also he quietly says he wants his family to have a record of him when he's gone. But the essays themselves struck a real chord with the audience of the time. He was able to write about the human personality, a lot about the pagan past, in a way that was a very safe way of talking about some of the issues that they were living through at the time. And one of the things that we so love about Montaigne is he's credited with inventing a new genre--the Essay. But I also think he invented a new audience, simply by being able to print and circulate these things, he created a new audience in a way that now, almost everybody--everybody with an Internet connection--has the ability to tell their story, to put their home movies up on YouTube or to write their story through a blog. People can expand their audiences and create in a way a new demand for this kind of writing. Incidentally, another reason I wrote about Montaigne is that one of the first things that I've noticed about our age and access to the Internet is how quickly the blog form grew up. And in publishing, how the most, the best-selling nonfiction genre is memoires. And they are all based on, whether they know it or not, it's all Montaigne's doing that we are so obsessed with ourselves and documenting ourselves. Russ: Well, I think it's so funny when people say--particularly people, I'm 61, but particularly my age and older, and some younger--they'll say, 'I don't go on Facebook because I don't want to know what you had for lunch.' My father in fact calls it 'Nosebook.' That's just a--I don't know. I get a kick out of that. He actually knows it's 'Facebook,' unlike LinkedIn, which for a long time he called 'Link-ed In'. But he knows it's 'Facebook,' but he calls it 'Nosebook' because he doesn't get it. And I get that he doesn't get it. But ironically, as you are pointing out, really much of the human curiosity is about what people had for lunch, or the equivalent--how Montaigne spent his days or how other memoirists, what they were thinking when they did the mundane. Or the bigger things; of course, we care about those, too. But we do care about--we care about everything, actually. Guest: Yeah. And I think we also--we feel very lonely, and that's why we connect with other people. And one of the--such a remarkable thing about the Internet is that rather than the Internet being something that alienates and removes human beings from human contact--which is what a lot of people fear: 'Oh, no, they are talking on their machines all the time'--in fact, what they are doing is they are communicating. I mean, they are creating communities of their own. And they are finding like-minded people: people who breed poodles, who would never meet each other because they live in different countries. And the behaviors we see among the young who are the digital natives we tend to blame on the technology. And that's really foolish. When I was 14 or 15, I went through a period of time where I couldn't get off the telephone. I was constantly talking to my friends. And I actually didn't go spend time with my friends. We didn't get together after school. We could have. What we did was we went home, and used our parents' telephones to talk, because it created a form of intimacy that we were not able to have face to face at that tender age. Russ: Yeah. That's a really good point. Guest: So I think that when these 14- and 15-year-olds grow up and they start to worry about, when they start to work in the workplace and when they start doing email, LinkedIn for their professional careers, and when they have children, and when their children start to mock them about their old technologies--'Oh, Mommy, you and your Facebook.' And these are people who will live into their 80s and 90s and 100s, even. The whole nature of memory will change. They'll grow older; they'll be less interested in what is new about the world and look more long term about the span of their lives and the continuity from their early days until their late days. So, I think it's just--you know, like I said at the beginning, we're caught, awkwardly in this transition phase. We know what we are losing, but we can't yet see what it is that we're gaining. And so, that's why I point out in history, why I use historical examples. People were always slow to understand the full potential of, the full positive potential of the new technologies. Just as they missed some of the dire bad potentials of the technology.
50:58Russ: Just take a quick technology question I meant to ask earlier and I don't want to forget it. You write about the destruction of the Library at Alexandria, how some of those things were saved, or were found elsewhere, but many things were lost. And in the old days, fire was the great threat. And many authors, many economists I know of lost valuable things to fire. In the old days, your book or your Ph.D. dissertation was something you carried around with you. And you could lose it; it could get stolen; it could get burned down. And then that was it. There were no xeroxes--there were no--so, life had a varied memory. And preservation of documents had a very fragile existence. And today, it seems, everything's great, because it's all backed up. But as you point out, we're very dependent on electricity to preserve that. How worried are you about those sets of issues for our digital memories? Guest: Actually, it's my greatest concern. It's the thing that--it's hard to talk about only in context of digital preservation or digital memory or digital information, because the entire, our entire society is so technologically dependent, and those technologies so depend upon information, digital information, but also secure, uninterrupted sources of energy. And increasing amounts of energy. And what worries me the most--it's not information policies, or technologies of preservation. We can solve those problems if we want. What really concerns me is our inability to address forthrightly our overconsumption of the natural resources that we depend upon for life. And we're not just talking about the green economy. I'm talking about resources altogether. And I'm not just talking about the natural, if extremely regrettable, denial of climate change and the inability of us to reckon with it in real time, but how in general we're in this phase--and I think a lot of it is driven by our infatuation with science and engineering, and aggravated by the capitalist economy, I think--that we are very short-term focused. The whole idea of thinking about the long term, about planning 20, 30, 40 years out for infrastructure--it used to be one of the strengths of the United States. And it's collapsed, mightily. And it seems that it's totalitarian governments such as the Chinese who are better able to plan long-term infrastructure to address such things. Even if they choose not to. So, you know, that's my ultimate concern. And digital information is one key part of it. But it's wrapped up in a much larger problem that the species now has about not being able, despite our brains and our technologies, to actually act rationally instead of irrationally, and to plan for the future rather than just thinking short term. Russ: I'm not as pessimistic as you are; and I'm not as optimistic about, say, totalitarian governments planning for the future. I don't think they do it well at all--in the abandoned cities of China. Guest: No. They're in a position to. Russ: Yeah, they're in a position to. But that's so not enough. That's so insufficient. I think we will muddle through, adapt, solve some of the technological issues related to climate change, to the extent it's as severe as people think. I'm not as worried about that, either. But that's a long other question. I just want to talk about the very practical question of: If you could be in charge of a large sum of money to protect the digital resources of the future, what kind of infrastructure do you think we ought to be thinking about, whether we are thinking about it or not? Where are some of the ways we might be heading? Because, in my mind, I think, 'Well, we just need to take all the knowledge and just put it on the moon somewhere so we'll have it.' Of course, that's not a plan. That's a fantasy. Guest: Yeah. Russ: But you do think of it that way. It's like, 'Well, I've got my hard drive. I'll just make another one. And I'll put that in a safe-deposit at the bank. Or, I'll put it in my mattress upstairs so if my house gets broken into and somebody steals my computer, they won't get that.' Or if that's not so good, 'I'll put it in the cloud.' But what if the cloud loses its--what if that company goes out of business? I mean, there are just so many--there's just no risk-free way to solve this problem, I don't think. It seems to me the obvious way to think about it is just it needs to be spread around, so that you are not relying on any one great thing, any one great cloud, any one company's great cloud. I have all my photos at Google, but I also have them at Flickr, and I also have them on my hard drive. But in terms of a nation, what do you think we ought to be thinking about? Guest: Well, I do think high redundancy, or an appropriate level of redundancy is the way to go. And, how much that redundancy is, I can't say. That's something that technologists think a lot about. But I think that in the network to the distributed world, our information is replicated pretty easily. And so, I think that's the best strategy. It is not to actually put it in one place. And behind a gate or a key. It's actually to replicate it. If you want to send it to the moon, fine. But that's not the only place. If I had a lot of money to solve this problem--I think a lot of--I wish I had some influence over policymakers and I'm not sure money-- Russ: Me, too, Abby. You're not alone. Guest: Yeah. I actually think the issues of policy around data use--national security versus privacy and open versus proprietary--that kind of thing--those are the pressing issues now. And if we lived in a different political world with a different political campaign right now, those are the things that we'd be debating. There are many people who are in the knowledge economy, scientists and scholars, who say repeatedly that once we solve these issues--once we actually get around data privacy, security, the ability to anonymize medical information, for example--once we have that in place, then there'll be a new wave of innovation in technology, which will actually redound mostly to consumers. And to individuals. But in the meantime, I think we can argue; I think we can agitate; we can vote. And we also should take advantage of organizations like the Internet Archive, which, and other institutions that allow us to upload our memories. And we ought to agitate for more of those.
58:05Russ: I want to read a poem. I don't think--every once in a while I read a poem on EconTalk. I don't think I've read this one before, but it's very appropriate. And we'll close with you talking about this, because I think we've touched on it. The poem is "Forgetfulness." It's by Billy Collins.
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
That's one of my favorite poems. It touches on a lot of things we've talked about, which is the importance of forgetting, the inevitability of forgetting, the desire that we all have not to forget, and yet we know we can't remember everything. So, talk about how you think we as human beings are going to go forward in a world of--very crowded: lots of ways to save things. What are we going to forget and what are we going to try to remember? Guest: Well, one of the things that we will always remember, I think, is Billy Collins--that's for sure. What an amazing human soul, to address so forthrightly the weakness of human memory and yet at the same time the way only poets can glorify the human spirit. For even, for him to say, that 'having once known these things,' is itself something so profoundly human. It's sort of--talk about giving hope. But the humility of knowing that you can't know everything, even where to look things up any more, sometimes. But I do think of that--one of the things that having access to a lot of cultural memory is that when we read about even the imaginative lives of other people--fiction or something like that--we take it in, it becomes part of our selves, it becomes part of our own mental furniture. And what he describes is actually very common: That we absorb some things at such a deep level, other information, that we can lose the title, we can lose the name of the river--which as I recall is Lethe-- Russ: Correct-- Guest: We can lose all of those--you know, the capital of Paraguay, the things that we don't use every day; but the experience of having taken in something and imagined--empathized--with another human life--that's what actually forms this sense of commonality with other human beings. And that's why the more expansive and diverse our access to cultural memory, to different cultures and their traditions--it makes it so much easier for all of us to live on, as you say, a very crowded planet. And now that we are in a global community, I think we need to be more focused on, or at least we need more arts education, and more learning about the cultural folk ways of other people on the planet. Because we deal with them in so many ways. And conflict is so, conflict of interest is so easy to arouse now, and arise between peoples, that having had some access to their culture and experiencing the world through their eyes I think will lead to a more peaceful world.

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