Jan 05

Children of the Ephemeral Age

ANDREW BOYLE, Comments: 0

A manWe are the people of the Ephemeral Age. The first generation that very slowly awoke to the fact that its digital diaries and debates, love letters and laundry lists, were for most part non-existent a year after they were written. Gone, and forgotten.



A man adds words of sympathy to improvised message walls after the Utøya massacre. 


Just how strange a predicament digital media has placed us in, was evident to me at a dinner with friends in Tønsberg at the end of last year. What had we been up to in the year that had gone? The usual tales of child-rearing and therapy sessions flashed past in lively conversation, but I doubt anyone would have felt aggrieved if the record of our year was lost to posterity. But there were exceptions, too. One of the group has been on a trail of self-discovery, peeling back layers of recent Norwegian identity to explore her ancient bedrock of Scottish history. In October Kirsti Jareg published the book of her love for the Western Isles.  

Another guest was the grieving father of an Utøya victim. Articulate about his experiences, he too represented in the strongest possible way the sense that there were events too important to be wholly entrusted to the underground digital archives of the National Library in Mo i Rana. We are the firstborn of the Ephemeral Age; we were the original customers for every cassette, floppy disc, and VHS tape that has made the Great Leap Forward from California to car boot sale: we don't place all our faith in microprocessor technology, not no more! Norway's story of Utøya, and the story of this father's loss and grief – we know the story will be told to future generations, because we know there will be countless books written about it. There it is right there, the four-letter word slipping through the firewall: Book. It is this, our residual trust in the printed medium, that defines us as transitional beings, as Early Period dwellers of the Ephemeral Age.

All this week Melvyn Bragg has been illuminating listeners to BBC's Radio 4 with programmes on the history of writing. Flitting from museum to museum he handled clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and parchment gospels ranging from 5000 to 1000 years old. Along with the realization that all these scribes had a much bigger bite of eternity than you and I and our digitized friends will get, is the obvious fact that only the voice of the elite has come down to us. The court records, the bibles – documents of the empowered.

Then, with printing, came distribution and eventually the availability of books for everyone. For the last three or four hundred years the power of the book has been so widely exploited it has been accepted as the mirror of its time, the Ark of the Zeitgeist. As long as the book, and perhaps the newspaper, survives, we can choose to document ourselves in fairly robust fashion. But for how long? From two directions we are being pushed towards a tipping point.

The first is the success of the e-book. An e-book is, in principle, as ephemeral as any tweet, any email. The document of record on a blind date with the digital dustbin.

From another direction comes the development of the digital archive. When we arrive at the moment when most creative work and social commentary is produced electronically, and all archival record is digitalized, The Ephemeral Age will enter its Late Period.

To whom will Late Period archivists in our National Archives turn to for advice on the right media for long-term preservation of our Zeitgeist? Yes, to people whose work – if the last 30 years is anything to go on – has the life expectancy of a burning Kleenex. People whose notion of eternity is open-code software, and whose notion of history is Commodore nostalgia. To computer technicians and software designers.

Of course in theory all material that is stored digitally will be able to be read by any technician of the future who understands digitalization. And what could be simpler than the language of digitalization?! In practice, after great cultural upheavals, what might have seemed obvious to one group of people is dirty dishwater to another. Egyptian hieroglyphs were first decoded in the 1820s and, as Melvyn Bragg reminded us on In Our Time this week, if you want to read the love letters of the great Minoan civilization – contemporary with pharaoic Egypt – well, your guess about how to read Linear A symbols is as good as anyone else's.

We children of the Transition, we should enjoy our books while we have them. Books fashioned 1500 years ago are holding up well. (Listen to the awe in Bragg's voice as the Stoneyhurst Gospel from around 700 is opened at the British Museum. The first page is pictured above.). The Book – yeah, it's bulky, but it will be legible a long time after the decay of digital discs and the collapse of microprocessors. That's hi-tec right there, between hard covers.

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