When Abby Smith Rumsey started working at the Library of Congress, she was worried about the amount of information being produced digitally.
“I was very aware that inside the library, people who knew about the technology and librarians and archivists understood that there was this avalanche coming of digital data that no one knew how to preserve and, in fact, this occurred very quickly,” said Rumsey, who worked with the Library of Congress’ National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. “ … Over time, I became more reassured that more people were aware of this — that more technology could solve some of the problems of preserving.”
Wanting to document that worry and ways to deal with it in the future led Rumsey to write When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. Rumsey will give the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Thurs., Aug. 16, in the Amphitheater as part of Week Eight’s theme, “The Forgotten: History and Memory in the 21st Century.”
During her lecture, Rumsey will touch both on the fundamentals of memory and the artificial memory humans have created.
“As far as we know, no other species records and accumulates information and knowledge the way we do,” Rumsey said. “It’s actually one of the keys to our success as a species. Why we are spread across the planet is because we actually can accumulate knowledge and share it with other generations — and now with digital, across time and space.”
Now with social media and the 24-hour news cycle, people have been exposed to an information overload, but Rumsey said the world experienced a similar flood of information in the 1800s. When people created the technology to record sound, they couldn’t just hold up an LP and be able to hear what was on the disc; they needed a machine. The same goes for digital memory, Rumsey said.
The concept behind digital archiving is that there is an endless realm in which people can save information, but it’s difficult to know long-term value in the digital era, she said.
Now, Rumsey said, there is one question that is repeatedly asked: What should we save?
“There is very, very little surprises and hard lessons in the digital realm that humans have not experienced before,” Rumsey said. “We’ve always been able to solve the problems of how to manage too much information, how to organize it in such a way that we can find it and that, like today and the past, sometimes we invent technologies to solve one problem, then create an entirely new set of problems that we hadn’t anticipated.”
Rumsey spent time in Soviet-era Russia researching the country during the 17th century. She encountered some documents that had been made inaccessible by the Soviet government, and said it hadn’t occurred to her that the political happenings of tsarist Russia could warrant censorship during the Soviet era.
Rumsey knew it was routine for people in charge of totalitarian regimes, like that in Soviet Russia, to erase people in photographs or censor documents. That’s how leaders controlled the population. Even when people tamper with documents, that gives insight into society of the time, Rumsey said.
With digital memory, she said it’s harder to discern what has been manipulated, but that’s only because the technology to figure it out hasn’t been developed yet.
“It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. People have solved these problems before,” Rumsey said. “People used to forge papers all the time until it became just a matter of vital importance to the state and other people that forgeries be detected. It will be the case with digital.”
Rumsey said there is no right answer to what people should forget or remember in the digital age because memories change.
“How we choose to remember people is fluid. It will change with time, and we are in charge of it. It’s we who remember,” Rumsey said. “We think our machines remember for us, but we are the ones who remember things. Machines don’t erase the past; humans erase the past, and they do it all the time.”