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Decay of language and understanding

Ability to record, store, and transmit information, ideas, and images makes us unique; without it we would definitely have never reached our present level of knowledge and technology. Access to existing knowledge, as well as past experience, skills, and information, are therefore very high on our list of priorities. Nevertheless, the range of facts that we would like to discover and use is very wide, and there is no unique pattern or recording system that can do this for us. Equally relevant is that both language and storage techniques are not permanent. Particularly with modern technologies, the storage aspects may survive less than a generation.

Often the window of opportunity to access specific facts and knowledge is very limited. A typical situation, which is highly personal and immediate, is to have information about our own family history and past situations. When we are young, we never really care about such history, as there are normally relations and friends who may have knowledge about it, and, at that stage in life, we are too eager to experience the present, and plan or explore the future, than to worry about the past. This is a very standard mistake as all the family photo albums, the anecdotes about our parents, grandparents, or second cousins would be accessible to us if we only stopped to question the relations who are still alive and alert enough to fill in the details. Once they are gone there is no way we can gain from their experience, nor add names and dates to the photo albums. It may even be that there were interesting family skeletons in the past that they would have been willing to disclose, had we asked.

The moral of this example applies more widely than just to family records. It is saying we must gain (and transmit) as much knowledge as possible, whilst it is still accessible, especially where living sources are involved.

My parallel advice for older generations is to deliberately volunteer the facts to the younger ones, whilst we can. Not only does this mean our ancestors will be remembered, but so will we. Humans have a vain and egocentric streak and we do not want to be forgotten.

There are two main reasons knowledge and information from earlier generations have vanished. The first is that we may have records, but they are in languages that either no longer exist, or in languages that have now evolved to such an extent that we can read the words, but fail to see them in the context they were written. The second cause of information decay is that it was produced on material (e.g. parchment or paper) that has not survived.

The latter problem is less obvious, as we are being conditioned by all the media and marketing that our knowledge base is expanding and it is becoming ever easier to access it from the Internet. Further, we can track family histories and have instant CCD (charge coupled device) camera and mobile phone photos that we put on our computer, CD, or hard drives. So we assume this should guarantee that the next generations will remember us. Unfortunately, this is totally false. The reality is that the very same rapid advances in computer technology are making current computers, software, and data storage systems obsolete. They are continuously replaced by newer versions. Whereas we may have some faded photos of Victorian relations we, in the early twenty-first century, may be lucky if in 20 years’ time we ourselves will be able to retrieve our own photos in a format that can be electronically read.

The technological advances that I will describe are revealing an unequivocal and easily demonstrated pattern that progress is bought at the expense of losing historic data and information. Indeed, our pictures may be inaccessible long before our memory has failed. Similarly, Internet information depends on it being maintained and operated without extortionate charging, a feature that is likely to occur in order to limit the traffic once the technologies can no longer cope with the ever-increasing demands.

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