While issues abound with archiving digital information, I find the future of handling information to be even more frightening. As information (and misinformation) continues to grow, the weight of our “hyperreal” and technologically saturated world threatens to crumble factual integrity and exacerbate the existing issues around archiving, data preservation, and information maintenance.
In Roy Rosenzweig’s “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” he writes about the future landscape of information:
“Still, the astonishingly rapid accumulation of digital data — obvious to anyone who uses the Google search engine and gets 300,000 hits — should make us consider that future historians may face information overload. Digital information is mounting at a particularly daunting rate…”
As we discuss the best archival practices for the present moment, are we doing a disservice to future historians by skirting around tomorrow’s problems and not coming up with solutions for issues we know will persist? Rosenzweig writes primarily to discuss how best to archive our past and, in doing so, he highlights the seemingly fleeting task of catching up to current and future trends. In some regards, archiving is just the tip of the iceberg. Looking to the future and grappling with the implications of information abundance is overwhelming.
The inability to deal with the vast corpus of information that has yet to be created or decimated in the face of technological advancement is not a new phenomenon. In the piece “W(H)ITHER Preservation?”, Michèle Valerie Cloonan writes, “…people in the nineteenth century complained about the information explosion…the consensus seemed to be that there was too much to read and too little time”
Historians and archivists complaining about the past information explosion led to the current information crisis. However, there is a difference between yesterday’s future and today’s future. Unlike in the past, much of the information that will be created in the future could be false. In fact, we are just now seeing the rumblings of an era full of widespread misinformation.
The proliferation of tainted information today can be explicitly measured in journalism. In Robert W. McChesney’s book Digital Disconnect, for example, he centers a major portion of his argument around the disintegration of journalism and its inability to provide the public with accurate information. And at its current rate, the situation is bound to get worse. Take Aviv Ovadya’s warnings that we are on the brink of an “Information Apocalypse”. In the Buzzfeed News article “He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis. Now He’s Worried About An Information Apocalypse,” Ovadya projects that the problems we see today are only set to grow larger and more difficult.
Ovadya particularly warns against the expansion of machine learning and artificial intelligence to turn our manual labor into more automatic, and often times biased, work. Charlie Warzel, the author of the Buzzfeed news piece on Ovadya and the potential information apocalypse, writes “the only viable way forward is to urge caution, to weigh the moral and ethical implications of the tools being built and, in so doing, avoid the Frankensteinian moment when the creature turns to you and asks, ‘Did you ever consider the consequences of your actions?’”
How will we deal with potential information apocalypse? According to Rosenzweig, the onus will be on future historians, archivists, and technologists. The role of the archivist is often relegated to dealings of the past. Concerns for the present moment are often left to journalists (which McChesney rightfully points out as dangerous). Similar to journalists, archivists are assumed to be neutral forces. In Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook’s article “Archives, Records, and Powers: The Making of Modern Memory,” the archivist is positioned as the keeper of objectivity. They write “the archivist is (or should strive to be) an objective, neutral, passive (if not impotent, then self-restrained) keeper of truth.” In “‘The Archive’ is Not an Archives: On Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies,” ML Caswell writes “…archivists act as gatekeepers to the past “
Will upholding traditional roles of gatekeepers benefit us? Is it okay for us to solely rely on future historians to deal with not only the largest amount of information ever created but also the contamination of it? Or are there solutions we should consider now that will better equip the future to deal with this inevitable onslaught? It’s clear we see archivists as the gatekeepers of the past and journalists as the gatekeepers of the present, but who are the gatekeepers of the future?