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When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future

When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future

by Abby Smith Rumsey


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Our memory gives the human species a unique evolutionary advantage. Our stories, ideas, and innovations—in a word, our "culture"—can be recorded and passed on to future generations. Our enduring culture and restless curiosity have enabled us to invent powerful information technologies that give us invaluable perspective on our past and define our future. Today, we stand at the very edge of a vast, uncharted digital landscape, where our collective memory is stored in ephemeral bits and bytes and lives in air-conditioned server rooms. What sources will historians turn to in 100, let alone 1,000 years to understand our own time if all of our memory lives in digital codes that may no longer be decipherable?

In When We Are No More Abby Smith Rumsey explores human memory from pre-history to the present to shed light on the grand challenge facing our world—the abundance of information and scarcity of human attention. Tracing the story from cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls, to movable type, books, and the birth of the Library of Congress, Rumsey weaves a compelling narrative that explores how humans have dealt with the problem of too much information throughout our history, and indeed how we might begin solve the same problem for our digital future. Serving as a call to consciousness, When We Are No More explains why data storage is not memory; why forgetting is the first step towards remembering; and above all, why memory is about the future, not the past.

"If we're thinking 1,000 years, 3,000 years ahead in the future, we have to ask ourselves, how do we preserve all the bits that we need in order to correctly interpret the digital objects we create? We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realizing it."Vint Cerf, Chief Evangelist at Google, at a press conference in February, 2015.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620408025
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Abby Smith Rumsey is a historian who writes about how ideas and information technologies shape perceptions of history, of time, and of personal and cultural identity. Trained at Harvard as a Russian scholar, she has worked in Soviet-era archives, spent a decade at the Library of Congress, and has consulted on digital collecting and curation, intellectual property issues, and the economics of digital information for a variety of universities and the National Science Foundation. She lives in San Francisco.

Table of Contents

Part 1 Where We Come From

Chapter 1 Memory on Display 3

Chapter 2 How Curiosity Created Culture 15

Chapter 3 What the Greeks Thought: From Accounting to Aesthetics 30

Chapter 4 Where Dead People Talk 48

Chapter 5 The Dream of the Universal Library 64

Part 2 Where We Are

Chapter 6 Materialism: The World Is Very Old and Knows Everything 85

Chapter 7 The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting 108

Chapter 8 Imagination: Memory in the Future Tense 126

Chapter 9 Mastering Memory in the Digital Age 137

Part 3 Where We Are Going

Chapter 10 By Memory of Ourselves 157

Acknowledgments 179

Notes 181

Selected Sources 201

Illustration Credits 217

Index 219

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