Belmont Club

Enter the labyrinth

The National Museum, seen from above, stands gutted (AP Photo/Mario Lobao)

The fire which destroyed as many as 20 million artifacts in Brazil’s national museum was caused perhaps by the most trivial of accidental circumstances. The Brazilian culture minister’s explanation that the blaze was likely caused “by either an electrical short-circuit or a homemade, paper hot-air balloon that may have landed on the roof” was greeted by riots because mischance does not satisfy the human urge to blame someone when things go wrong.

But catastrophes can happen for no discernible reason.  Historically natural disasters have vied with human malevolence in the destruction of libraries.  The great 1923 Kanto earthquake destroyed the chief Japanese libraries and the British Army burned the original Library of Congress in 1814.  Against nature and man libraries cannot stand forever.

The destruction of 20 million Brazilian records, tragic as it might be, pales in comparison to the potential loss of the digital libraries upon which our world depends.  The 21st century is generating libraries at an unimaginable rate and they are by no means safe.  Just one radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), is expected to produce “up to one exabyte (10 to the 18th bytes) of data per day, roughly the amount handled by the entire Internet in 2000.”  According to a source quoted by Forbes, the world may be creating 163 zettabytes of data a year by 2025. (A zettabye is one trillion gigabytes.) Much of this information will be used to create the software libraries upon which our daily lives will increasingly depend.

It predicts that by 2025 nearly 20% of the data in the global datasphere will be critical to our daily lives. In eight years’ time, an average connected person anywhere in the world will interact with connected devices nearly 4,800 times per day – one interaction every 18 seconds. … more than a quarter of all data created will be real-time.

Data creation, it says, will shift its drive from entertainment content to productivity-driven and embedded data, as well as non-entertainment images and video such as surveillance and advertising.

Digital data is vulnerable not only to physical mischance but to logical perils as well. Unlike older forms, you can’t even touch or feel them.  In the past we could rely “on durable physical objects to carry knowledge across space and time … cuneiforms date back 5,000 years and are still legible [to the unaided human eye] … By contrast, digital data are ephemeral, easily overwritten, dependent upon hardware and software, decipherable only by machines.” A 2002 article in MIT Technology Review noted that “we can’t guarantee that any [digitally produced data] will be usable 100, or 10, or even five years from now” simply because they may be stored on obsolete operating systems and forgotten file formats.

“The layman’s view is that digital information is more secure, when in fact it’s far more ephemeral … We know how to keep paper intact for hundreds of years. But digital information is all in code. Without access to that code, it’s lost.”

Ironically most of the data will be destroyed by the librarians themselves. The Forbes study noted that “only 19ZB of the total amount of data that will be generated between now and 2025 will actually be stored. ‘We store less than 1pc of the data we create,’ says Hochtman, ‘and that number will continue to decline.'”

Some data is even thrown away in real time.  Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained how they could ban anyone they wanted. “Not even President Donald Trump is immune from being kicked off the platform if his tweets cross a line with abusive behavior. … The Twitter CEO also denied a Wall Street Journal report that he personally intervened to keep far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and white supremacist Richard Spencer on the site.” If it was decided someone should go then off they went; it was as simple as that.  The archivists rule.

Today’s librarians no longer operate out of ivy covered buildings on bucolic campuses with collections of a few million.  They now operate on an unimaginably gigantic scale using hardware scattered across continents.  For the most part, the public don’t even know who they are.  Yet these librarians wield enormous power: the effect of their decisions on access, erasure or alteration of digital data is identical in impact to fire and earthquake on earlier paper.

Their power is even greater because digital libraries, unlike physical ones, can not only be destroyed but can be changed continuously.  The Internet of Things, smartphones, operating systems and web-based services are all subject to updates without any user choice, making any sufficiently lengthy conversation a monotonically increasing risk. The mutability of context means that if you say enough you may eventually be guilty of something.  If #MeToo has proved anything it is there’s a firing — perhaps even a criminal — offense lurking in your digital history.

The trend toward library censorship may mean a future Internet can only survive by becoming fragmented because  it’s the only way for users to join a context they trust.  A recent New Republic article  describing self-censorship by America’s elite universities on China illustrates the difficulty.

This epidemic stems less from the hundreds of millions of dollars Chinese individuals and the Chinese Communist Party spend in U.S. universities, or the influx of students from mainland China—roughly 350,000 in the United States, up more than fivefold from a decade ago. Rather, it is that some people in American academia, too eager to please Beijing or too fearful of offending China and the Chinese people, have submitted to a sophisticated global censorship regime.

Would you trust a library whose narrative is managed in China or will you try something else?

The destruction of Brazil’s national museum is a reminder that human history has always been a struggle to preserve memory itself.  That’s not a trivial task. Recently “Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin took a swipe at the upcoming movie ‘First Man’ … for its director’s decision not to show the planting of the American flag on the moon during the historic 1969 mission” on the grounds that he was there. But who’s to say?  Who’s to say?

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Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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