Saturday, February 10, 2007

MS Fnd in a Lbry

This morning I read the short story “MS Fnd in a Lbry” by Hal Draper, originally published in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1961. Apparently it’s quite difficult to find in print, but there is an online copy available at:

The basic premise of the story is that as the body of human knowledge grew exponentially, so did the need to index it. Eventually, it reached the point where education did not teach anyone anything except how to use the indexes to find information. This is already sounding like the present day.

When the indexes became too large and cumbersome, they broke--as all overly-complex things eventually do. And thus, with all information and knowledge effectively lost (although it was stored somewhere--just no one could find it), society collapsed.

The concept, if not the mechanics, was very prophetic. In 1961, before hyperlinks and electronic indexing, the problem was envisioned as the astronomical size of physical indexes, catalogs, and bibliographies. Today, the problem is more related to file types and the inadequacy of keyword searching.

The first plague of the Information Age: file types. I have files on my computer that I can not read. They are stories I wrote with ClarisWorks. ClarisWorks was eventually replaced by AppleWorks, but the current version of AppleWorks can no longer read old ClarisWorks documents. Therefore, these old works of mine are effectively lost. I know someday the .cwk filetype of AppleWorks will be obsolete, but AppleWorks does not handle .rtf (a slightly safer bet for a slightly longer run) with any degree of adequacy. So I need to get MicroSoft Word for Mac. However, this requires me to upgrade to a more recent version of Mac OSX. The most recent version of OSX comes on a DVD-ROM, so in order to upgrade my OS, I would need to buy a DVD drive, as my computer presently only has CD-ROM capabilities. Do you see the dominoes all lined up? But they are expensive dominoes to knock over, and so I am trapped with .cwk, wondering how many times this cycle will repeat and how much of my work will be lost within my lifetime. Hopefully no more than has already been, as I hope I have learned my lesson. However, I am human, and humans fail despite their best intentions.

Knowledge is lost due to obsolete file types or storage media quite frequently. I can not remember the name of the project or where to find information about it (a separate problem of the Information Age, which I’ll come to shortly), but I do remember reading some years ago about a project to record some vast body of knowledge in a very compact space. Within ten years, the technology was so obsolete that no one had the right kind of drives to read the storage medium, much less the software to read the files. This is a central problem facing libraries today. In 100 years, you can open a book, and as long as it hasn’t turned to dust, you can read it. In 100 years, can you absolutely, positively guarantee that you will have the right software to read a .pdf? Will CDs eventually go the way of the floppy disc or the U-Matic tape? (Do you know what a U-Matic is? We have some in my library, but who can view them?)

“Important” information, of course, will be converted to whatever the new format of the day may be. But who decides what is important? How much information will be forever lost, unevaluated?

The second plague of the Information Age: the loss of proper indexing. Library administrators all over the world, especially in the United States, no longer believe that cataloging is relevant or important. They bow before Google and say, “See? The people have spoken. Keyword access is enough.”

Yes, I use Google. I use it a lot. I’ve used it no fewer than five times in the last hour. But it is not always the right tool for the job. Keyword fishing is not very efficient. Cast one out. No good results? Try something else. Still nothing. Hmm, think, think, think, what else might X be called? Do you know every possible synonym for whatever you’re looking for? What about foreign language terms? Don’t you wish keyword searching were coupled with high-quality, well-maintained thesauri? See the above paragraph, where I referred to a project that I did not know the name of. If I knew the right keywords, I could probably find it with Google. But I do not know the right keywords, and so the knowledge is lost to me.

UPDATE! Even as I typed this essay, the word “Domesday” floated to the surface of my mind. Ah, serendipity! The oft unacknowledged friend of all knowledge-seekers! I tried “Domesday” in Google, and found a bunch of stuff on the original Domesday book, but not what I was actually looking for. But Wikipedia--a much more organized, codified tool than Google (although, again, not always exactly the right tool for every job)--did lead me to the BBC Domesday Project.

Because someone put great effort into converting the information into a format readable today, the knowledge on the BBC Project’s laser discs has been preserved. But again, someone had to realize that the knowledge was slipping away and go to the effort to retrieve and reformat it. How much other knowledge has already slipped away?

If this sort of speculation about the future interests you, I also recommend the book Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs (New York: Random House, 2004.) She does not particularly address the issues I’ve discussed here, but she explores many other social and economic houses of cards we have constructed. When we reach the point where we do not realize what we have lost, then we will truly be in a dark age.

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