Digital archiving, the internet, and my brain

I started reading The Shallows recently. It’s a fascinating, persuasive argument surrounding neuroplasticity and the effect of the internet on the brain, and I began reading it prompted by a determination to understand how people have adapted (and are adapting) to constant online influence.

In summary, it makes the suggestion that social media and wider access to the internet has caused humans to adapt to short-term, shallower thinking instead of longer-term, deep thought, and that this could have unintended consequences on wider society if we continue down this path. As someone who is Very Online™️, I absolutely recognise the characteristic shifts thats it describes. It has made me reconsider my interaction with the internet, and particularly social media: Facebook no longer sits on my phone, Twitter has strict time limits, and I’ve reconfigured my home screen to reinforce opportunities for deep learning over instant gratification.

Strangely, though, it’s not a passage from the book that prompted me to write this. It’s actually a quote it references from the American cartographer Arthur Robinson, talking about the historical effect of maps on society:

The use of a reduced, substitute space for that of reality, even when both can be seen, is an impressive act in itself; but the really awesome event was the similar representation of distant, out of sight, features. The combination of the reduction of reality and the construction of an analogical space is an attainment in abstract thinking of a very high order indeed, for it enables one to discover structures that would remain unknown if not mapped.

My day-to-day work is in the world of digital archiving, where I spend my time figuring out how to preserve information and the best ways to make it useful. In a world where the internet continues to grow exponentially, and more content is being created than ever before, it’s a fascinating subject area to operate in.

Archives, both physical and digital, provide a backstop to history. If history is ultimately to explain change, archives are there to evidence it. It is not for the archivist to pass judgement, but to evidence without fear or favour to those that will: the more data that we can capture to ensure that reality is not lost to the annals of time, the better.

In an increasingly online world, the kind of information that we can preserve for future generations has significantly changed. To look back at the 1600s, we could rely on the diaries of Samuel Pepys to give us a peek into British life. Fascinating as they are, personal accounts like these tell us little about the wider struggles of English society during that time, and certainly do not provide detail from the perspective of those less-fortunate than Pepys. Whilst there are other primary sources for historians aside from personal accounts, they still loom large in the public consciousness when we discuss the issues of yesteryear.

For the first time as a civilisation, we have the ability to record life as it happened at every level from citizenry to government, all at an equal footing. As a consequence of the network effects of the internet, our mechanisms for societal communication have become standardised: ultimately, even the Prime Minister sees exactly the same “tweet” box that I do. Whilst the reach of a world leader may be significantly larger than social media users, leaders across the globe don’t (yet) have control over the very public right of response that other members of that platform are granted by consequence.

If, as The Shallows supposes, we are rewiring our brains for short-termism, our approach for documenting our times must adjust also. We no longer have the luxury of judging the quality of our sources based upon their endurance of time. Twitter accounts, pivotal to societal change movements across the globe, appear and disappear in an instant. Websites, even those considered unimpeachable at the peak of their popularity, will eventually cease to exist, as all things do. The towers of our digital life are built upon sand, and as they did with Geocities and Vine, one day the sand will swallow those towers up. It is up to the digital archivist, therefore, to capture what is important before that inevitable day comes.

Like those first cartographers, we have access to a vast array of unstructured data at our fingertips, often data that would be impossible to discover without automated crawling - distant and out of sight, in the terms of Robinson. I think it must be up to us, then, to make sense out of the chaos of the internet and to allow those who will document our times to be able to draw their conclusions based upon the best possible sources. We must ensure that, through digital archiving, we allow others to discover the structures of our life that would remain unknown otherwise - the future of abstract thinking in our society relies upon it.