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How the Internet Is Changing Human Memories and History

How the Internet Is Changing Human Memories and History

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InCyberDefense, In Military and In Space News. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.

Do you remember your great-grandfather? I don’t.

My grandfathers were war heroes, insofar as heroics are concerned, in the last truly global conflict. But I wouldn’t know my great-grandfather if he came up behind me and tapped on my shoulder.

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Until now, the human species has lived almost entirely in the present, completely unaware of our own family members’ lives only a generation or two removed. Our time-depth, as Carl Sagan put it, is pathetically, disturbingly shallow.

The vast majority of our ancestors are completely unknown to us; they are lost to time forever. Companies that run ancestry and DNA services have discovered a profitable market here, but even different companies’ DNA results often don’t even agree with each other, let alone provide any real insight into your past.

Go even further back in time to the thousands of men and women who make up your direct line of descent, and you are met with nothing — no names, no faces, no occupations, no countries of origin. A last name might give an occasional hint as to some distant ancestor’s occupation — for instance, names like Baker, Mason, Potter or Weaver. But for most of us, there are massive, irreparable gaps in our living memory.

Your Digital Memories Will Live Forever

Readers of this article are members of the first generation that will live forever in terms of their digital legacy.

We have a compulsive obsession with posting every little detail about our lives from what series we just binge-watched on Hulu to how great that burrito was from that food truck. So, it is entirely feasible that our direct descendants will know intimate life details about us, 500 years from now.

Today, historians are desperate for yesteryear’s first-hand accounts of both famous historical figures and common folk. But, tomorrow’s historians will be drinking from a veritable firehose of first-hand documentation. There are billions of social media users who create blog posts, pictures, PDFs, metadata, GPS locations, and tons and tons of videos.

In an area previously reserved for heads of state, artists and musicians, future historians will have an unprecedented level of detail into our era, if they can sort through all the data. In fact, the successful ancestry company of the future will be the company that can categorize and make accessible to your descendants the 0.77 gigabytes of data that you create daily.

With the rise of 5G and internet-enabled sensors in every humdrum household object, the volume of data is only going to increase.

But as data volume increases, it stands to reason that processing speed will as well, which is an elegant technological solution to a very human problem: clutter. Even archeologists know to look for human refuse for signs of a settlement. We can’t help it; we leave trash everywhere. There are even 400,000 pounds of human trash on the Moon!

Future humans will have to sift through our data clutter in much the same way as modern-day archaeologists.

History Is Watching Your Memories

While a company like Facebook may benefit greatly from your personal data, they are still a company and have no obligation to preserve that data. Centuries from now, Facebook may not even exist or it may exist in an entirely different form, perhaps broken up into smaller companies by a U.S. government increasingly sensitive to monopolies.

For posterity, it may be a good idea to download your data from time to time from various social media sites that you frequent. It’s entirely plausible that data privacy as we know it won’t exist in some future era; we can see its erosion now before our eyes.

Perhaps future historians and direct descendants will have some sort of special access, in the interest of closing memory gaps and researching a family member from long ago.

Gaps in humans’ living memory are bad; we can learn from others’ efforts if the data survives. Without it, things that may have been painstakingly learned over hundreds of years may have to be “rediscovered” at great cost.

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. – George Santayana

On a more intimate level, it’s likely that we are the first generation where common peoples’ legacies will survive centuries, perhaps millennia, into the future. With this idea in mind, be careful what you post. Your great, great, great, great, great, great-granddaughter would probably rather read something profound from you, instead of how mad you are that you got cut off on the way into work this morning.

Show your character rather than your clutter.

History is watching you right now. Show your future descendants something that they can be proud of.

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