Mass Replicability

An unfinished thought on mass replicability (I may have just made up that word), here it is, I’m going to take note and continue later. Living in an age of digital media and means, do we have an imperative to make as many copies of the information, cultural artefacts, algorithms, etc., which we store in this medium, as possible? Must we mass replicate all our digitally stored leavings?

I’ve been chatting (err e-mailing) with my friend, Chris, about his concern with digital cultural amnesia. This came via his collection of old modem protocols and BBS doors. He brought up the point that people have to be able to remember how to access old data, even when we have the ability to emulate older software. This is a different problem from what I started this post with, but it is related so I’ll come back to it in a moment.

See, I’m thinking (and this is by no means a new problem) that even if digital media don’t really decay nicely like analog media but rather, just give their storage bounty an all-or-nothing effort, their saving grace may be the ease with which we can make replicas of whatever is digital. Perhaps if we focus like mad on making as many copies of every digital thing that we can, we’re making progress on extending the digital archival value for the future, in spite of its lack of graceful analog-like decay.

Even if that’s the case, then we still need, as my friend pointed out, people that can figure out how to access it or use it. I imagine there may be a day when you could hand someone a floppy disk or DVD ROM and the person will have no clue that it might even be a storage medium. Maybe at that point in time, computers as we think of them won’t even exist. All would be lost.

That’s a pretty bad case. Perhaps that isn’t a problem if we obsessively copy all digital media to every new medium, in as many instances as possible. But it doesn’t change the access issue. If our person in the future has our artefacts stored digitally, what’ll he do with them? He’ll need some understanding. We need to find ways to ensure that we also pass along our savoir-faire. And that gets me to thinking about free and open source software, where the code is accessible along with everything else. Perhaps one of the more important aspects of FOSS is what it may build for our future. In propagating the freedoms, such as those laid out in the GPL, maybe the most important significance is that it makes mass replicability possible. The necessary liberation for copying the digital is enabled, while the means to access what is copied are encouraged.

As I said, I’ll have to spend some time working on this thought. What makes copying pragmatically necessary? If we hope to preserve humanity’s wisdom and culture for our future at all, can we argue that we have an imperative to copy? Perhaps people that never delete, P2P, and “pirates” are the next bogman, Library of Alexandria, or papyrus.

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