Broadly there are various types of information that (a) we absolutely need, (b) would definitely like to access, plus (c) material that is interesting, but we could survive without it. I will give examples of each type.
In the prime position of category A are data related to our bank accounts, birth certificates, passports, driving licences, taxes, insurance policies, postal and email addresses, and phone numbers of friends and contacts. Without access to them we would rapidly head into a chaotic state and might not even be able to buy food and other goods. Other data, such as our medical records, are hopefully needed less frequently, but their loss could raise problems. For all these types of information, we need reliable and accessible data that is not easily destroyed or corrupted by other people for criminal or accidental reasons. A mere 50 years ago, we accepted responsibility for such data storage. We kept paper records, which were secure from electronic spying, but nevertheless were vulnerable to fire and theft. Technological progress from paper to electronics offers many benefits, but an increasing uncertainty in terms of security, or, in some locations, poor electronic availability.
Perhaps in this first category of key items of knowledge I should include the fact that many skills of craftsmanship and manufacture are not, and cannot, be written down. These are the personal skills that are learnt via training and apprenticeships, and they need verbal contact. They range from metal and construction techniques to playing musical instruments. As we move from actually learning manual skills, to just sitting at a computer, we are destroying irreplaceable knowledge. The change can be divisive as we automatically feel superior to those who do not have our own skills, but the craftsmen, from whom we could benefit, may be less computer literate than the young. Therefore we may fail to listen, which in turn may cause a rift between the generations. It is not just the young who will undervalue skills with which they are not familiar—it is a two-way problem. New technologies are thus divisive in the key step of acquiring many types of skill, data, and verbal traditions.
Category B refers to data and information that we would like to access. This is characterized by material that once might have been available in books, journals, libraries, or manufacturers’ catalogues. Similarly, for many items it was possible to visit a shop and have a direct discussion with staff that understood their product, and could give helpful advice. With Internet purchases, this personal touch is lost, and we can never tell if one manufacturer makes a better product than another, as viewed from our specific needs and preferences. The electronic route may appear to be cheaper, but if there are many alternatives, decisions are harder. We also lack sight of the items until they arrive, so cannot judge a true colour, texture, or quality of items such as clothing or furniture. Further, many products cease to be produced. Many skills, data, and items vanish—they are lost and cannot be replaced. This is irritating and unfortunate, but not immediately life-threatening.
Category C is more in the realm of history where we want information and ideas that were discovered and discussed in earlier times. Some such data may link to skills that are now obsolete, but we wish to duplicate; for example, in a restoration project. Other items may be purely for historical interest. Finding the source material may be difficult, and the historical records may not even be in a language we understand, so we will rely on translations or other commentators. Realistically, if such information is lost, then it is sad, as it relates to our cultural heritage and understanding of how civilizations have developed.
Whilst I personally find many historical events, documents, painting, and music are interesting, I am also very unhappy that we fail to have learnt much from past history about the negative side of human nature. At all times, we have continuously waged wars, enslaved people, or persecuted them in the name of progress, territorial greed, or religious fervour. Since this is a message that we really need to learn, then I feel it is equally essential to have the historical records available to us as the immediate items in my prime category. If we learn, then perhaps we may aim for a more considerate future. (Clearly I am an unworldly idealist.)
These three categories of information obviously decay for a variety of reasons, and I will discuss the problem of language loss in this chapter, and, in the next, look at the survival and decay of the materials on which we have recorded information.