ATG Newschannel Original: Memory in the Internet Age: Part 2: A Conversation with Historian Abby Smith Rumsey

Nancy Hertherby Nancy K. Herther

This is part 2 of a 3 part series.  Here are links to Part 1 and Part 3.

Abby Smith Rumsey, historian and curator, has written a truly “must read” for all information professionals–librarians, editors, publishers, academics, and historians alike. When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future (Bloomsbury, 2016; ISBN 9781620408025) On July 7, 2016, Dr. Rumsey sat down for an interview for ATG readers with Nancy K. Herther

NKH: You write that “this is not the first time humanity has felt overwhelmed by the riches created by our ingenious inventions,” yet “nothing we have invented so far is as fragile as digital data. We began our attempt to cheat death by creating mighty artifacts of clay, stone, paper and parchment that outperformed our memory by hundreds and thousands of years. Now we create storage media that maximize volume, not durability.” Your book covers these issues of technology and information from a different aspect, that of cultural memory throughout history. Could you give us your definition of “memory.”

AR: There are so many different sides to memory. From a biological point of view, the brain is this amazing tool, devised to allow all life to get around in the world in real time. Somehow our nervous system is able to learn the environment and provide information that is stored in our nervous system—and in higher mammals, that are kept in our brain—in order to keep ourselves prepared for the world. So we can concentrate our brain on processing information that is new. It is a survival mechanism in a sense.

Memory is the capacity to know the world and to be able to act in the world and only actively process this new information. It’s a survival tactic in some sense. And there is the biological aspect of the brain as well. That said, in humans, because people are cultural creatures, especially now, in a world of our own making. That is, the things that from the cultural world in which we were born, and this varies greatly from one culture to another and one time to another.

What I’d like to see, and key to what drives librarians and scholars, is that the past of the whole human experience is richly available to all of us. No individual can remember everything so we rely on institutions to keep that memory available for us.

NKH: How should we see the balance between memory and the technology that is providing us with virtually unlimited means to create, capture, save, and share these memories in this new terrain?

AR: It’s stunning! We’ve never had this level of information or access before. We’ve invented all of these absolutely amazing technologies for recording information. Nothing lasts forever, but these resources that have greatly expanded the ability of humans to curate and share information. And today, we can now capture a truly limitless amount of information and preserving data is not an issue. However, these technologies have the same types of constraints that humans have.

One thing that I hope people take from this book is that there is fundamentally a big difference between storing data and preserving memory. They are very different ways to think about what is valuable. We need to make choices not on what can we afford to keep but on what we can afford to lose. That’s a paradigm of thinking that is totally new. It runs counter to some of the core practical assumptions that historians and librarians have always taken for granted. It’s very difficult to get historians to talk about what is less important to keep if you have a limited amount of space.

NKH: Today we face more information than ever before, yet we have no moral or cultural coda or laws to guide us. I think this is one reason for the European Union’s actions on the Right to Be Forgotten. The issue of fairness is another aspect of valuing information and making decisions about what is kept and what should be freely accessible.

AR: We are used to having information disappear, as the objects for storage disappear and that isn’t true on the web becauserumsey things are so widely replicated. It isn’t happening anymore.

The cultures that have produced these technologies—and these come from Western, primarily American, thinking—are focused on the premise that innovation is a good all by itself and that the future is always better than what was in the past. The current generation is so absorbed in technology and its advantages, also believing that the present is always better than the past. All generations go through this. Today’s Millennials are so young that they still haven’t learned the value of sorting through things and making decisions. I believe that these issues will solve themselves over time as these younger generations of digital natives grow older, have more experience, and begin to hear from their children about what old fogies they are and how bad their technologies are!

NKH: Another factor in all of this is that we live in a world of ‘rule by data capture’ and algorithms for accessing information and memory. With the exception of groups like the DP.LA and Internet Archive, digital preservation today is almost completely in the hands of private companies. Google has its “do no evil” mantra, but companies are still profit making organizations which protect their assets and their business practices.

AR: That’s right. Today digital information is really in the hands of both governments and very large capital-driven companies. I try to be realistic in my assessments and not be Utopian about the solutions to these problems, but take the world on its own terms. For some time, I was a member of a NSF group working on the economics of digital preservation. It was clear that one thing that capitalism fails at is long-term investment in public goods.

Preservation is, without an exception, a public good. We have been able to balance this drive for capital accumulation with a reasonable amount of long-term investment basically giving copyright exceptions and public funding to libraries, archives, museums, and other institutions which, as memory institutions, do this on behalf of the public. However, this has totally collapsed with the digital regime.

Copyright has been trumped by digital licensing in the digital realm, and will continue to be a major issue for the foreseeable future. The idea that copyright can be reformed in the digital realm is not quite accurate in my opinion. A call for a robust public investment in libraries, museums, and archives will eventually be dealt with in the next eight years, certainly, if we make it clear to the public what are the risks.

NKH: In addition to the business/technology side of this information matrix, there is the public stewardship side. It is truly distressing to see the decreasing public support for the liberal arts, the academy. The rise of adjuncts and other changes are truly challenging scholarship today.

AR: I couldn’t agree more. We are suffering through a very acute period of extreme short-sidedness. I think this is an issue that is well-beyond the limits of something that librarians or other groups can solve by themselves. This is going to take everyone in the public sphere—public servants or people that care about the public good—to raise this issue and make clear what is at risk, and including some of the advantages that people assume we will get from technology will automatically give us. And I think that once the risks are clear to people, over time they will deal with them.

We are in a very strange period right now where our electorate, which has unprecedented access to information, is probably more uninformed than ever—or more falsely informed than ever. And we can see in this presidential cycle that a good portion of the voters are, in fact, very contemptuous of facts and fact-checking. And I think that they are really voting on the basis of their emotions. I think that rather than being dismayed or disgusted by that we should spend some time trying to understand why that is, and understand that an overly fact-based culture is, in a way, just as untrue as a totally emotional one.

The systems that we’ve built have been constructed by human beings who need to be aware of the moral values that go into the algorithms. We know what types of decisions and choices are being made by the corporate sector when they create or re-do an algorithm for search; but I think that until librarians and curators and historians begin to do their own coding and creating algorithms, we won’t have a model or even an understanding of what should be done.

I really believe that one of the hardest challenges that the library profession faces will be catching up with idea that, in a way, it is all archivable now. The mass of information now is so great that we have to be able to look at it en masse as opposed to the old sense of publication and selection as it has been done. It’s just not operative any more. We need these new skills. I think there is still a long way to go before the education system for information science will really be able to grapple with this.

NKH: You have written that “there is no doubt that local and regional libraries will be richer in content than ever because the internet allows distributed, networked collecting. The new model of the library in the digital age is one of deeper networks of cooperation with other libraries, to cope with the scale of digital information being produced….But that doesn’t mean that their transition to the digital age is simple, a matter merely of passive evolution, guaranteed to happen and guaranteed to have a happy ending.” I read a recent blog post that asserted that we already have enough librarians in the Library of Congress (LOC) so we shouldn’t support Carla Hayden as the new Librarian of Congress. Your thoughts on this key role?

AR: Well, as someone who has worked at the LOC for many years, if there is one thing that the Librarian of Congress does not do is any traditional library work! The things that we are talking about are exactly the types of issues that the next Librarian of Congress needs to deal with. One of the most important issues for Carla to deal with is: What is the role of our national library—or any national library—in the 21st century? Who else is really able to deal with these key issues of public policy and to be able to work with members of the President’s cabinet and advisory board of science who are calling for new data policies on information access, privacy and other key issues?Library of Congress library-74038_1280

The promise of Big Data and data sharing will not come through without laws and moral codes and protocols for anonymizing data for health analysis. Think of all the things of that we want to do, for example, with oceanographic data run afoul of maritime and jurisdictional law. Unless we start resolving these issues we will never see the potential advantages of Big Data. These are the issues that will face the new Librarian of Congress, who is in a unique position to deal with these critical issues.

NKH: In your book you are really presenting a call to consciousness if not a call to action. Do we need laws to protect the integrity of information today? How can we protect or guard these new types of critical information from abuse—and also ensure critical thinking skills in our users when confronted with such a wide variety of perspectives and motivations?

AR: This really begs the question of how gullible people are when they see information in print or online. Some will always believe that if something is in ‘print’ it must be true. That attitude was true in the Renaissance time period as well when they invented print. The only way we can fight against that is to focus not on laws but on educating people on how to be skeptical about their sources when they assess information.

NKH: A few more quotes from your book: First, “memory is about creating a coherent and continuous model of our world.” And another: “Memories serve not the past, but the future. The real job of history centers and libraries is to look forward into the future to anticipate what information circulating today will be of value to people 50 or 100 years or more.” Your book provides some important, thought-provoking perspectives. Could you expand on this role of memory for us?

AR: In a purely biological perspective, we memorize the world so that when we act in real-time, we have a model of the world in our heads so we don’t have to wait to receive the information again: That ready information about what to expect in our world. Today we are in this cocoon of culture, so much of what we tend to think of as our instinctual reactions to something like the color of our skin as a natural fact is actually something that we grew up with as something that our culture has taught us to interpret what ‘the color of skin’ means. So in some ways, the cultural memory is where we learn all of our cultural values—what is good, what is bad—and one of the reasons the cultural record should be so free and so rich because if we tell just one version of the past it means that we grow up [with] a sense that that’s the way it has always been.

We see this in very innocuous ways. A child trying to understand what it was like to grow up in a world without the internet based on their personal experiences. It is also true that the wrong kind of cultural memory might cause people to look for villains when something goes wrong is responsible for the outbreak of wars. That was certainly true in the case of the Balkans in the 1990s. Where do these memories or ideas of the Battle of Kosovo come from? In the case of Kosovo, things had been quiet for over a hundred years, yet the memories remain and continue to be expressed to new generations. That speaks to importance of cultural memories in our actions.

The thing about memory is that it is not so that we can collect a lot of facts, but that—particularly as we look over a longer period of time—we see a continuity of events that cause us to find information about the past to try to make sense of what is happening today; always asking ourselves: Why did this happen? What is so sensible about this? What can we learn from this? What explains this? By understanding it, we can better respond and hopefully see that we don’t repeat historic mistakes.

NKH: As librarian for both American Indian Studies and Asian American Studies, I want to ask you about the promise of greater inclusion in the future. As you have written, “The new-model digital library will rely on ever deeper networks of community members, individuals and groups, to identify and collect digital materials important to them. The greater the community participation, the greater the access to truly diverse cultures now and into the future.” In the past, many cultural records—and especially oral cultures—were lost or dismissed in preference to Western perceptions or versions of history. Does our future hold promise of being more truly inclusive of the total experiences and perspectives of our global community?

AR: In our current state of academic history, one of the most encouraging trends is that we are now developing a better appreciation of different cultures and different ways to capture history and the past. One of the most famous examples of this was from research that historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed conducted proving that Thomas Jefferson did have children with at least one of his slaves (The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, ISBN 978-0393337761). This was done based on oral history accounts and completed before we were later able to verify this with DNA testing. This is a very promising trend in history. I think it is a very powerful example of how we can address what we tend to think of ‘gaps’ in the historic record, but in reality aren’t really gaps at all.

NKH: Your book is very hopeful and you seem to see a clear path for getting through the fog created by these seismic changes today.

AR: I wouldn’t call it a clear path, nothing is predestined here. I have to admit that when I first started this book some time ago I was really quite pessimistic and I couldn’t quite imagine how we would be able to solve this problem. I started with an archival model but then pretty soon the whole scale of information began to stir my imagination. I learned more about technology and how quickly things change and people adapt. By the end, I became quite personally—not encouraged—but not discouraged. As a historian, I know that even if we haven’t been through a similar experience before as a species, we have felt as though we were going through a similarly catastrophic experience as the result of some change in information technology. When compared to global warming—which I think is a more major threat—I believe we, as a culture, will resolve this technology challenge. Both global warming and technology share the same issues of our ability to plan long-term and take action. As we all learn more about the technologies and realize that, yes, we will be operating through machines, but more importantly [we learn] that we can control those. At that point, I become quite reassured that the power is in our hands and that this can turn out well. Whether or not it will, remains to be seen. But I really feel very relaxed about the impact that technology is having on younger generations. As they grow up they will change some of their ideas and attitudes about technology just as we did.

NKH: Your book has gotten excellent reviews, good sales and you’ve been invited to present to a wide variety of audiences, even as one of theTalks at Google,” last March. What have you learned from the reactions to your book?  

AR: What has surprised me the most was that it has gotten the reaction and attention that it has. I thought that it wouldn’t be technical enough for many people and that others might find it not specific enough, offering a firm solution. I’ve also been very surprised by the warm reception that the book has gotten from scientists who have read it. I’m not sure that these issues cross their paths that often, yet the book got very good reviews in both Nature and Science. At the Google presentation, one young woman asked me if what we are really seeing with the internet today is a rebirth of oral culture, that this was a return to a wider plurality of formats and perspectives. I was thrilled with the question because that allowed me to say that, yes, we are seeing a much wider involvement, people can be speaking in their own language, in real-time to other people and that’s a wonderful thing we’ve never had before. Then, she asked where this might lead us—and, of course, I couldn’t answer that. No one can today. But as a historian, I’m confident that we, as a culture, will find our way through this.

Nancy K. Herther is Librarian for American Studies, Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. herther@umn.edu

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