Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Who will Preserve Knowledge Post-peak?

Knowledge is, by its very nature, transient and ephemeral. It exists as memory in the intricate synaptic paths of the brain. The conveyance of that knowledge down through generations can be accomplished by word of mouth and be compromised through layers of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Or that knowledge can be captured and recorded in a form that others no longer need physical access to the person with the knowledge but can get access to the knowledge through the recorded version of that knowledge, through books, papers and digitized media.

The preservation of recorded knowledge, however, requires a tremendous amount of energy, dedication and commitment by those who assume the resposibility of preserving it, protecting it and disseminating it to others, especially those others in future generations. The problem arises from the fact that the media in/on which that information is recorded, though more permanent than synaptic networks, are only permanent relative to human longevity. Paper and the various magnetic and other information-recording media are sensitive to deterioration over time. In order for that knowledge and information recorded using such media to persist down through time they must be regularly transcribed and recorded - always with the risk of error, misinterpretation or misrecording. There must be an ongoing use of energy in order for that knowledge and information to survive over time.

Today we must be forgiven for the impression that knowledge is permanent. Our generations are committed to its preservation, to the discovery and restoration of the knowledge from ages past. And yet even much of that ancient knowledge has been understood and restored and preserved only because of the fortuitous discovery of the rosetta stone that allowed scholors to understand the ancient languages in which much of that knowledge was written.

Today we rely very heavilly upon magnetic and other digitized media to help us preserve much of that ancient knowledge and, indeed, our own contemporary knowledge. Paper, even of the very highest quality, is very sensitive to deterioration without exceptional environmental controls. Virtually all written media in human society is rapidly being preserved onto digital media with the intent that such media can more readilly and accurately be preserved and transfered and re-recorded in the future.

But such digital recording requires modern technology to be workable. The recording for preservation of all of that written information involves, and requires, millions of computers throughout the world. Data is recorded on millions upon millions of disks, CDs, tapes and other recording medium which is also subject to deterioration over time.

Simple question..... What happens when the technology fails? When the electricity grids go away? When the information networks go offline... permanently? What happens to all of that information and knowledge in those computers that no longer exists in written media, is no longer recorded on paper or some other medium than those computers and their digital storage devices?

There has been a virtual explosion of information and knowledge over the past century. Knowledge grows, like the population, exponentially, only faster. There has been more new knowledge developed in the past century than in all the previous history of man on earth. And it is all being uploaded to computers as fast as we can manage. And if our society were to be able to continue for the next century in the same way as the past century we would double human knowledge again. If, as many expect, especially we in the peak oil movement, we are approaching a global peak in oil production, in energy production, in energy availability, our high-tech society will not continue unchecked for the next century.

Do we record it all back on paper? On clay tablets? On papyrus? If our high-tech information storage abilities are about to disappear or become severely degraded, what other alternative recording media do we have or will we have in order to save all of that accumulation of human knowledge? More importantly, from where will come the commitment and dedication to do so? Who will shoulder the responsibility, as did so many cloistered monks in the middle ages, of preserving that knowledge? And what criteria will they use if they must be selective because it is impossible to preserve all knowledge? What will they decide to salvage and preserve? Who among us has the right to make such decisions?

Think about it.

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