I came across this little snippet this morning:
For a BBC program in 1954, Sir Mortimer Wheeler tasted a reconstruction of the Tollund Man’s last supper, which turned out to be a tasteless mush. This led him to announce: “I believe that the poor chap of Tollund committed suicide because he could stand his wife’s cooking no longer!”
having once had girlfriend who was pursuing a PhD in Ethnobotany, and more to the point liked to experiment with what we’ll call exotic food plants I could only sympathise with Sir Mortimer.
Let’s just say that the traditional Inca potatoes were a fun addition to dinner but that ground-elder must have been a significant contribution to the end of the western Roman empire – a tasteless chewy spinach like green gluck.
However it did get me thinking about mental experimentation, the art of trying to think yourself as living at another time or in another culture – and what it means for digital preservation.
The obvious use for mental experimentation is in historical fiction. The past is a different country, where not only do they do things differently but also one we can never visit. We can guess, we can re-enact, we can experiment, but we can never visit.
We can read the literature of the time but we can never quite put ourselves in the same place as someone who lived at the time, no matter how much barley mush and ground elder we eat.
The reason for this is disruptive change. I’ve written previously about how life the Victorian era was quite different from life fifty years previously, due to the disruptive changes caused by large scale industrialisation and the impact of steam ships, railways, the penny post in changing the nature of communication.
So it s with our own time. The postal service is dying, communication is via the internet and more and more our life is going digital. We may not realise it but we are living through a period of disruptive change much as the Victorians did. Because we now do things differently. Our workflows may still be the same but techologies used have changed immeasurably.
And that creates a discontinuity.
There are those who can remember how things were and those who can’t because they were never there.
For example, I can remember pounds shillings and pence, eight inch floppy disks, steam trains, punched cards. I remember Wordstar. I even taught it. I remember when international calls were shockingly expensive and the fax machine was the latest in cutting edge communications technology. I even remember thinking Modula-2 was cool.
No one under thirty five will remember such things. And indeed why should they.
But this does create an interesting problem for writing history (or indeed historical fiction). Before 1980 most documents were either handwritten or typescript, and most books were printed. Despite all the changes and disruptions of the twentieth century the world worked more or less the same in 1960 as it did in 1880. Governments may have changed, empires disappeared but the mechanics of daily life were similar, which made the interpretation of documents simpler as we were operating on the same set of assumptions. It also means that we can read them.
To explain the importance of shared assumptions take this example:
Australian post boxes are red because once all post boxes in the British Empire were red. In Laos, despite the Indochinese wars and nearly forty years of the People’s Democratic Republic they’re blue. Because once all post boxes in France and the French colonies were blue, even though now in France they are yellow. Thus if some one talks about ‘putting something in the big red box’ you know they mean posting a letter if they’re in Australia or the UK. If you were in Laos it might mean something completely different.
Today, documents are almost universally written using Word, and are either emailed or come on a USB stick. We have an expectation that we can read any recent document. And if they aren’t AbiWord or Open/Libre Office can open them. In other words we can probably recover documents written in the last few years, or if we can’t we can use OCR to recover the text from a scanned version.
However, that’s not the case with legacy data.
I was recently trying to recover some data from the 1990’s. The data was tables of numbers and the documentation that described which column contained what was written in TeX.
Fortunately, someone had had the sense to copy everything to CD sometime around the end of the nineties so recovering the information was a simple matter of installing OzTeX and generating a PDF. And we could read it because the media was a type that was still in common use and hadn’t changed during the intervening decade and a half.
If it was still on an IoMega Zip drive it could have been a problem. Same is true of the box of floppy disks we all have in our garages. Or indeed the three inch Amstrad disk cartridges from the late eighties. The media could well still be readable, but with what?
The reason being that in the eighties and nineties we had a period of disruptive chaotic change during the widespread adoption of information technology.
Wordprocessing applications came and went. First it was Wordstar, then WordPerfect and finally Word, with AmiPro getting in on the act. Media formats equally changed. Single sided to double sided, from eight inch through five and a quarter to three and a half inch disks. Macs of course used an 800k rather than 720k format etc etc.
For example, in the mid eighties I project managed a number of small ecological surveys, that would give species abundance data for then. At the time we were concerned with the impact of acid rain and what it might have done to the relative abundance of various species compared to earlier surveys stretching back to the nineteenth century.
Nowadays we are more interested in global warming than acid rain, but the data collected in the nineteen eighties would still be valuable. Except we took the survey sheets and typed the species data into a set of flat data files on a CP/M based machine. We did upload the files to a Vax for statistical analysis but we deleted them to save space, keeping the primary files stayed on a set of five and a quarter inch disks. I have no idea if the disks still exist.
The implication is that documents written and data collected during these decades will be difficult to recover even if we have the original files and media. And as such we have lost part of the story of how we got from there to here …