Unless you have a very zen sense of humor, the proverb “nothing lasts” is not very reassuring. This is particularly true in the online world, where so many things pass their “best by” date almost before you’ve heard of them. We wish the longevity of our work could be measured in dog years–the reality is more like mosquito years. Just recently, everyone has moved off to “the cloud,” leaving the earthbound behind with the equivalent of pushcarts full of 8-track tapes and Betamax players.
My poor iPhone 4s, rolled out with such fanfare, and still too new to swap up, is already too fat, too heavy, too slow, too small. And it’s not just gizmos. Yesterday’s perfectly good web pages cause newer browsers to choke and cough, as if they were made of tomb dust. All of the NCPR web audio recorded before 2005 might as well be chiseled onto clay tablets. Publishers are beginning to bypass paper printing altogether for electronic formats that will almost certainly be extinct as the dodo within a few years.
On the one hand–all the world’s recorded music could be copied onto a single petabyte drive. On the other hand, in twenty years, there probably won’t be a working device on the planet that can still play something that old. From the stone age to the classical period, the world’s collective memory was passed on from memory, in poetry and myth; from then until 1450, it was penned on parchment. From 1450 to 1900, it was the province of print on paper; and since then it has been recorded on a quickly changing mish-mash of physical and digital media.
What gets left behind with each transition? How would we remember?