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Preserving Our Past

But fire does not destroy clay tablets. On the contrary, it preserves them. When exposed to heat in a process known to potters as firing, they became far more durable. An indication of just how stubbornly sturdy clay tablets are is that between five hundred thousand and two million clay tablets have been dug up over the past few centuries, many of them perfectly preserved. They may not be as lightweight and portable as scrolls, let alone books, CD-ROMs, or the silicon chips in our smartphones. But in terms of sheer durability, the technology for writing reached a peak five thousand years ago and has been going downhill ever since.

—Excerpted from Abby Smith Rumsey’s book, “When We Are Not More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future”

This book mentioned above examines many of the same concepts that can be found in “Society’s Genome,” yet comes from a different perspective. If Society’s Genome” is written from an IT viewpoint, “When We Are No More” is written from the data curator’s perspective. In her book, Rumsey examines human memory and the means of preserving and sharing it from antiquity to the present.

Rumsey points out that humans are unique in their ability to move through four dimensions – whether it’s imagining themselves in an ancient Roman battlefield or piloting a spaceship.  This comes from learning from objects of the past and transferring that knowledge forward.

“Society’s Genome” looks at the interstice of analog and digital from the digital side. “When We Are No More” addresses the impact of information lost in the creation of digital content. A startling example is a draft of the Declaration of Independence on display in the Library of Congress.

The sight of Jefferson’s venerated text so vividly edited always draws people up short. They are startled to see that the most famous phrase in this most famous document—“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”— is not what Jefferson wrote. He wrote that the truths are “sacred and undeniable.” The words we know so well today are in fact a correction suggested by Benjamin. The jarring yet oddly familiar sight of the Declaration of Independence in full track changes mode makes self-evident the disagreements among the Founders and the compromises they agreed on.

Those who enjoyed “Society’s Genome” would certainly appreciate another view of digital preservation from Rumsey’s “When We Are No More”.