October 18, 2011

Latent Celebrity

In the past, society only had the resources to keep track of the currently pertinent. Books, magazines, and newspapers have limited space, and limited resources, so they cover only (what they consider to be) important things and important people.

Now, because so much of our lives are digital, we can store everything, and decide later what is important. Obscure action by obscure people can be stored, and later gain relevance when either the action or the person turns out to have been important, in retrospect. It's as though the data is just waiting for its importance to be revealed - a sort of latent celebrity.

For example, in 1991 a Master's student in Finland was working on a hobby operating system, and asked if anyone wanted to pitch in. The project eventually became Linux. Because the conversation was held on a digital mailing list, we can now study the founding of Linux using the original sources. That is really amazing.

Perhaps just as importantly, there is even a record of similar projects that failed. When publishing is a bottleneck, there is a bias toward focusing on the positive. By having full data on the winners and the losers, we can do much better at finding the source of the success (which might be just random).

There is a dark side to this "latent celebrity" - this storing of everything. As a silly example, digital search and transmission makes it easy for sites like failbook.com to publicize obscure idiocy for the world to see.

I believe that we are just beginning to explore the implications of a digital culture.

Immortal Artifacts

I found this video very humorous, and probably a very apt description of how our understanding of the past compares to reality.

However, the same lessons don't extrapolate into the future. We are leaving digital artifacts, which are (potentially) immortal. It's very possible that a historian in 3000 A.D. could listen to all of the Beatles' recordings, with exactly the same quality that we can listen to them now. He could watch their movies, and read newspaper articles about them.

Part of what makes another culture feel old or distant is the fact that aging is a lossy process - their paintings fade, their buildings collapse, and their books are lost. How will things change when our artifacts (e.g., the web) can be perfectly preserved indefinitely?

October 14, 2011

The Second Digital Revolution

Image by dullhunk
DNA provides a great distinction between data and medium. While our DNA (the medium) dies with us, our genes (the data) can be passed  down to our posterity. In fact, some of our genes may be billions of years old. This immortality of genes stems from the fact that they are digital. Genes happen to be encoded in DNA, but they are just base-4 information.

Up until very recently, human beings only created analog artifacts. A painting lasts only as long as the canvas (or the cave) it was painted on. They can be reproduced, but  only imperfectly and at great expense.

Books are one step closer to being digital. The English alphabet is, in a sense, a base-26 code. The problem with books is that it is difficult to replicate them.

With computers, we have created a system like DNA - digital information plus a way to replicate that information quickly and faithfully. The first time that sort of system came into being, the output was all of the life on earth. It will be interesting to see what the results are of this second digital revolution.