The End of Decay

In a previous post, I talked about the history books and the consequences of missing meta-data from the historical record. I want to return to one point:

“If you look at the historical record, you’ll see a general trend: The further we look back in time, the less we know. We can blame much of this on decay. We live in a dynamic world with forces of erosion, destructive organic processes, and tectonic activity. Nothing lasts forever.”

In many ways, this “nothing lasts forever” idea is changing. 

We live in a different world than our ancestors did… one that has changed significantly because of the digital revolution. One of these changes is that the content we produce in a digital format is persistent. It lives on and on without degradation or decay*.

This is part of an incredible progression. Two hundred years ago, a song was a particularly special thing because there was no way to preserve it. That changed. With each new recording technology that came along, music could be saved and stored… but there was always a shelf life. Vinyl records were fragile in some ways and cassette tapes would age and lose fidelity. But now, if your music is stored on Apple’s iCloud, you can listen to it forever, without any decrease in quality. In fact, in this format, it could actually increase in quality. There are similar gains in the transition to digital video and images. The end of decay means incredible opportunities for preserving memories and information for years to come.

But there are other consequences. Earlier I said that details in history were often “intentionally omitted from the records because they weren’t notable, or significant, or graceful.” But now, with the amount of data we’re storing online, those details actually ARE being preserved. In no other example is this more apparent than in Facebook.

I got a Facebook account in 2005, back when it was “The Facebook.” I don’t know what an average Facebook user looks like but let’s assume that I’m pretty close. With other **reasonable assumptions, in the year 2050 anybody on the planet would be able to hop on their computer and see me bragging about my Fudgesickle + Milk = Chocolate Milk realization during my Freshman year of college. Setting the privacy ramifications aside, the fact that we are preserving such detailed information on such a large scale is unprecedented in the history of the world. Throw in Twitter, Google+, and the blogosphere, and we’ve got an incredible glut of non-decaying data containing relationship drama, family feuds, vaguebooking, trolling, dudes commenting on their workout routines, and photos of cats. Every day, this dataset gets larger and easier to search through.

This results in some unintended consequences. What happens when we introduce a never-changing object into a dynamic world of growing, learning, birth and death?

When our words are preserved in such a way that they don’t decay, it always feels like they were said yesterday. Any passerby can read the information, fail to notice the timestamp (if there even is one), and believe that you still feel that way, when you don’t. Think of the hard feelings from the civil rights movement or the bombing of Japan in WWII. In this life, the passing of time dulls pain and brings forgiveness. But when the stinging words are perfectly preserved–etched into digital stone, as fresh as if they were said yesterday–how can healing happen then? I’m not sure.

What’s more, it’s entirely possible that these bits of information will outlive us. Perhaps they will even define us. Perhaps two hundred years from now, when the last person who knew you dies, all that will remain of your existence will be the digital footprints you left. Do you want your legacy to be your fiery comments on the Huffington post, or your zealous devotion to ensuring that “this pickle gets more ‘likes’ than Justin Beiber”?

I didn’t think so.

* Well… theoretically. There are still a few caveats.

** We would have to assume that I’m not using of Facebook’s opt-in content restriction features and that Facebook is still around 40 years from now.