On Being Ephemeral


This haunting photograph has surfaced on a number of blogs in my reader recently (along with other photographs, equally beautiful). It’s the Library of the Abbey of Saint-Gallen and it’s by Candida Hofer. Many of her photographs of libraries are empty, static, and serene. In this one, I think what makes it so powerful is that the people themselves seem fleeting and ephemeral, while the printed books, and the library itself, seem solid, durable and lasting. It’s an illusion in lots of ways, more beautiful libraries of that age have been lost than have been sustained, but it’s a powerful, attractive illusion nonetheless.

Which begs the question of how lasting, durable and solid is the exciting, shifting, chaotic, digital knowledge world we’re constructing, deconstructing, exploding, reassembling, patterning and repatterning around ourselves right now. The technical and uninspiring term for it is “digital preservation”. The worry is that we have become creatures of the moment, building and sensemaking for now, and losing our sense of continuity, that essential way that we link past to future, that everything we create for now will be words blown away on a digital wind. Ephemeral.

Two shreds of comfort this week have come from two very different sources. In the first, Sebastian Mary reminds us that we have been here before, in a thoughtful essay on the comparisons and contrasts between Alexander Pope’s critique of the explosion of printed “rubbish” – as literacy and technology conspired at the end of the seventeenth century to make it absurdly easy to rush into print – and Andrew Keen’s diatribe against the explosion of fragmented hypertextual amateurism in The Cult of the Amateur.

Where’s the comfort? Well we’ve been here before, and somehow we survived. Somehow, libraries like Saint-Gallen survived, and somehow, so did incredibly rich collections of ephemera like the Thomason Collection. Somehow, we’ll survive this risky forgetfulness-prone mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

The second shred of comfort came across my radar thanks to Puna Das via KM-Forum and maps one of the ways by which that “somehow” might become a reality. It’s more technical, it’s not sexy, it’s a candle in the wind. But it’s hopeful.

‘Towards an Open Source Repository and Preservation System: Recommendations on the Implementation of an Open Source Digital Archival and Preservation System and on Related Software Development’, Kevin Bradley, Junran Lei, and Chris Blackall. Paris: UNESCO, 2007.

And meanwhile, the wonderful Internet Archive keeps crawling and gathering, crawling and gathering. We may be ephemeral, but the human capacity to slow down time is amazing.

Thanks to Thinking Shift, Your Daily Awesome, Curious Expeditions and if: book for the library links.

4 Comments so far

Matt Moore

On a philosophical, the ephemeral nature of digital information is an uncomfortable reminder of our own ephemeral, mortal natures.

At the same time the world is better recorded. People fret over future employers finding youthful blog posts 20 years hence.

Our information worlds are disordered plenitudes.

Posted on September 20, 2007 at 04:06 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Disordered plenitudes of the temporary Now, Matt… at least in the blogosphere, how long is our memory, and how persistent our futures?

When Newgrange in Ireland was built over 3,000 years ago, it took two or three generations to build, the alignment of the inner chamber with the winter solstice rising sun could only be checked two or three days a year (if it wasn’t cloudy), and yet that alignment was sustained from the first works on the tomb to the final structure.

Sometimes I wonder whether the greater the plenitude of information the more temporary we become, and poverty of information gives us, as a species, greater sense of memory and foresight.

Posted on September 23, 2007 at 12:19 PM | Comment permalink

Matt Moore

"how long is our memory, and how persistent our futures?”

Two simple questions without simple answers. Let me ask back: “How much choice do we have over either?”

“poverty of information gives us, as a species, greater sense of memory and foresight”

A benefit of poverty is an appreciation of what you lack. Whether most would trade that appreciation of wealth for wealth itself is another matter.

Many cultures seek to induce an appreciation of material goods through fasting. Perhaps we need to introduce information fasting?

Posted on September 26, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Quite a lot, I would have thought… we can consciously devote ourselves towards past and future as we are consciously devoting ourselves to the present now. I’m curious about the balances or imbalances we maintain, only time will tell I suppose how functional or dysfunctional they are.

I like the idea of information fasting. Dave Snowden had a nice idea for a “email detox” programme… but what would a systemic information fasting programme look like?

Posted on September 26, 2007 at 12:08 PM | Comment permalink

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