ZOMG, FIRST POST!!1!!one!!
I am in Scotland for the summer, working as a software assistant in the lab of Dr. Mike Tyers at the Wellcome Trust Center for Cell Biology at the University of Edinburgh. Waiting in the airport before my flight over from Vancouver, I realized that I hadn’t packed a book, and my Irex Iliad was out of batteries… doh! As thrilled as I was at the prospect of Zoom Airline’s masterful film selections, I thought I’d better load the proverbial Dice of Entertainment Probability, and happened upon a wonderful little book in the airport bookstore:
It turned out to be a very enjoyable and instructive look into the history and personalities surrounding the development of the Uncertainty Principle which I would recommend to any who, like me, knows less about physics than they would like to. Or if you’re on a plane ride with FSM-awful film selection.
Something which struck me was that many of the insights the book provided into the personalities and private arguments surrounding the historical events were gleaned from letters which the major players had sent to each other, detailing their thoughts and perspectives on the issues. This got me thinking: how will future science historians gain similar insights into modern scientists, when the nature of modern communication is so transitive? In a world where email, IP-telephony and instant messaging are the dominant modes of discourse, what will remain as a public record for the documentation of scientific development “as-it-happened”? Few people keep old emails forever, and once they are deleted they are pretty much gone forever (unless future historians will be both remarkably skilled in forensic data recovery, and remarkably lucky). Heck, even writing in the margins of hard-copy books, which has historically provided insight into the reader’s personality, and maddening enigmas to spur development, will likely be a thing of the past before too long.
Interestingly, unlike paper media like letters and books, which are MORE likely to survive if jealously guarded by their owners and more liable to entropy with use, digital data gains longevity from heavy trafficking. Newsgroup and forum posts are likely to have long shelf-lives with services like WayBackMachine and Google caching*, whereas private emails and instant-message conversations will likely be lost. So there’s an interesting conflict between privacy concerns and public interest. Perhaps Google or Amazon storing private data might have long-term practical benefits? Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that I like the idea of multinational corporations spying on my private affairs in order to subtly sell things too me, but what I am saying is that I’m fairly sure that by the time I’m pushing up the daisies, I won’t be too concerned with what my private data is being used for, and if it might serve in some meager capacity to benefit society, my decomposing bones certainly won’t complain. Perhaps we should be giving greater thought to the preservation of digital data – even if it is private?
At least we can be sure that the deep insights contained within the comment section of YouTube will be maintained for posterity.
(* This is somewhat disconcerting – I’ve often thought I might come to regret the more naive (read: stupid) questions I’ve asked on various user help forums)