Why have we lost so much of what was written in the past?
Think about how many Greek and Roman written works have come down to us. Then think about the journey they had to make. Somehow, they survived fire, flood, indifference, religious persecution, war, theft, and the relentless process of physical decay. It’s miraculous that we’ve got any of it at all.
Then imagine how much more they wrote down that hasn’t made it. Some of Archimedes’ work only got to us because somewhere a monk got hold of one of his works, and to save money, unbound it, scraped the surface clean of ink, folded the pages in half, and used the now clean surfaces to write religious texts. Through incredible luck it managed to survive through all kinds of stress, including the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22, being dubiously acquired by a travelling businessman and stuffed in a damp, mouldy room for years, then through a turbulent legal battle before being bought at auction by a wealthy fellow who made it available for analysis. Even then, the work and technology required to reveal Archimedes’ work was expensive and exacting. (Despite the monk’s dedicated scraping, he left enough of a trace for the original to be recovered.)
Think of everything that had to happen to make it possible to read that book today, then remind yourself that it’s the only copy that’s made it. Every other copy has been destroyed.
We can get an even more vivid picture of what we may have lost, if we step away from writing for a moment to consider the Antikythera. It’s a physical computer, able to predict the positions of stars, eclipses, and much more, decades in the future. It’s an exquisite, highly complex mechanism, well beyond the believed capabilities of the ancient Greeks, yet it was made sometime between 205 and 60 BC.
Like the Archimedes Palimpsest, it too required a miraculous journey, and years of dedicated research and investigation before we truly understood just how amazing it was. It survived a shipwreck, more than two thousand years in sea water, to be recovered by sponge divers in 1900, who passed it onto an archaeologist who ignored it for years because was just a lump of corroded lump of bronze and wood. When one of the cogs was noticed, archaeologists considered it too advanced for the rest of the stuff found on the wreck and so ignored the whole thing. It wasn’t until 1951 that interest really kicked off, but it took another 23 years of work after that before anything was published on it.
Wow… Here’s a device that changes our entire understanding of just how sophisticated the ancient Greeks really were, and it can’t possibly have been a one off. The knowledge and expertise that went into making it can’t have just created that one thing. There had to have been others, and many other different kinds of devices as well, but none of them have made it down to our own time.
For any object to survive through the ages is largely a matter of luck, but different kinds of objects face different kinds of challenges, and the written word is especially vulnerable.
Writing hacked into stone, or pressed into clay tablets has a decent chance of surviving through the ages, the biggest threat being human vandalism of some kind.
Stuff written on less durable surfaces like papyrus and paper are physically less resilient. They fray, they rot, they dissolve because of the acid still in the paper after its manufacture, or the acid in the inks. They tear, they rip, they burn. The list of physical threats is endless. Yet they suffer another kind of risk that should resonate with our modern selves; format wars.
Imagine you’re the abbot in charge of a fine monastery somewhere in Europe. Your scribes have been busy at work for centuries, copying and transcribing dozens of scrolls, then some clever clogs comes along and invents the bound book. If you want to duplicate your scroll library in the new bound format, it’s all got to be done by hand, every single letter carefully written out with a quill pen. Okay, you’ve got all these scribes available, but they were already busy doing other stuff, so how many of those scrolls are going to get copied across? Not very many. Only the ones people really care about, the important, or at least the ones in constant demand. And once people have got used to using books and not scrolls, what happens to the scrolls? They stay in the scroll cupboard, gathering dust, rotting away. Loads of stuff “got left behind” because the work required to make the jump to the new format was just too daunting.
If it sounds odd leaving so much precious stuff behind, then ask yourself how many people copied all their old video tapes to DVDs? All those weddings, children’s birthday parties, Bobby’s first horse ride etc, how much of that got left behind? And if you want it back today, unless you can find someone who still has a video tape machine you’re out of luck, because nobody makes them anymore. You might have the physical tape, but you can’t do anything with it.
And the DVDs? Well that’s going the way of the Dodo as well, now everyone’s gone digital and the cloud. Ripping a DVD is a lot faster than copying a video tape, but it still takes time and effort, so a lot gets left behind. And even the digital isn’t safe. What was cutting edge a few years back, now looks grainy, dull, and amateurish. So even though the content itself might be precious and valuable, seduced by ever brighter screens, higher resolutions, and immersive audio, we leave even the greatest works behind.
Today we have infinite online storage, so you’d think our worries about losing stuff would be over. They’re not.
First of all, file formats change all the time. I have Microsoft Word documents I created in the 1990’s, and I have to jump through a few hoops before I can get Word to open them. It’s only a matter of time before I can’t open them at all. So I have to convert them to modern formats. If I only have ten or so, no problem. What if I have over three hundred? What if they’re scattered across multiple back up drives and I don’t even know where they all are anymore? That’s no different to having to convert scrolls to books, apart from the fact that in a hundred years’ time someone will still be able to read a two thousand year old scroll, while nobody will be able to read a 1992 MS Word document.
Think about that, and what it means to posterity. We know about the ancient Greeks because of what they left. What would we leave if there was a nuclear war that wiped most of us out? Imagine a handful of survivors starting from scratch, and two thousand years from now, their archaeologist descendants are hunting through the detritus of our lives. Would they even be able to tell if we could read and write? What would they find that would tell them that? They’d still be able to find the odd ancient Greek carving here and there, and deduce how long ago it had been made. Then there would be four thousand years of nothingness before the light of literature shone once more upon the world. The contributions in between would have vanished entirely…
The second worry about the modern world losing stuff is more immediate. We’re generating so much of it, it’s impossible to keep up. We’re swamped, and each of us only gets to see a fraction of what’s available. If you don’t know it exists, you can’t go find it. Add to that the deliberate campaigns to spread misinformation around the planet for political and ideological ends, and telling fact from fiction today becomes a huge challenge, let alone making sure the good stuff is preserved for later use.
What’s important to you that you want to see preserved? Are you going to do something about that yourself, or are you going to rely on other people, the mysterious “they”, because “They’lltake care of it, I’m sure.”?
Every time you kick something into “The Cloud”, you’re relying on the mysterious they, trusting that other people you know nothing about, are going to look after it, protect it and secure it as if they treasure it as much as you do yourself. It’s convenient, it’s cheap, but is it really as safe as you think it is? Have you checked, or do you just take their word for it?