Re: The "Library of Alexandria" Non-Problem

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 4 Jan 2002 14:00:11 +0000

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Stevan Harnad

RICHARD MINSKY: "The internet is ephemeral and much of what was on it
has already disappeared... Some people may want durable media that
don't require a machine or a power supply to read them."

The actual communicative transaction is always between the abstract
residue of one brain's output and the concrete sensory-input apparatus
of another brain. Media always mediate, even in the case of the oral
tradition, to convert one brain's neural goings-on into the neural
goings-on of another brain.

Media are sensory peripheral devices, porting bits to brains.
Media mediate, but bits encode. That is the analog to digital
transformation. And once bits encode, all that need endure is the
encoded bits, and the decoding rule (also bits). Failure to endure
is always either the loss of the media storing the code, or of the
means of decoding them, so as to make the bits accessible to the senses

Is paper an exception to this, lacking a machine or power supply?
I think up a story. In the oral tradition, I tell it to others,
via the medium of speech (including my vocal apparatus, the sound
medium, my hearers' ears). There was hardly a more fragile, ephemeral
medium than that. All that was needed was for the finite number
of brains that knew the story to die out, and the oral tradition was

Enter writing (verba volant, scripta manent) and the first "digital
preservation" initiative. The labile encoded bits of the story now
become lapidary: etched in stone, and eventually paper. But we still
keep worrying about the lability of those individual hand-written
manuscripts; they are too few, and can expire, especially in fire,
war, or natural disaster, as surely as brains can.

So the bits are multiplied and dispersed globally with the invention
of printing. Redundancy and distributed storage media are born. But
the principle is the same: Bits are encoded and stored in storage media
and made accessible to the senses for decoding. In the case of writing,
the storage medium and the sensory input device happen to be one and
the same. Does that make it less vulnerable to extinction, or more?

We can quantify this. What is the probability (in terms of number of
volumes, location, and the vagaries of terrestrial life) of a
library-of-Alexandria disaster? We cannot make that risk zero,
but we can make it as small as the fragility of the planet itself
permits, by putting backup copies of a book on as many of Gaia's square
metres as are available. We don't. We truncate the risk at the level of
our current network of libraries and personal owners, and trust that
when acid decay sets in, we can migrate the bits through a reprinting
(long mediated, by the way, by machines and electricity -- not to
mention their role in what would otherwise be reading in the dark).

Now, it is undeniable that the PostGutenberg era, with its brand-new
digital media and peripherals, got off to a rough start. Old discs are
no longer readable; old computers no longer work; old software no
longer runs. Is this a fundamental defect of these new media, or merely
a symptom that we are only beginning to get our sea legs (or rather,
our air wings, in the PostGutenberg Galaxy)?

There is a thesis, owed to Alan Turing and Alonzo Church, that
computation is universal. That means you can encode (analog-to-digital)
just about anything and everything into bits, and the rules for
manipulating them. A picture is worth 1000 words; but computation can
encode into bits as many words and as many pictures as you like. And
then sensory peripheral devices can invert that code
(digital-to-analog), and make the words and pictures audible and
visible to our brains again.

Yes, we can lose or destroy our storage media, just as we could lose or
destroy paper. But the solution in the two cases is again exactly the
same: Distributed storage and redundancy (many backups, all over the
planet -- enough to reduce that risk to as low as it is with paper, if
we like, or even lower).

Yes, the sensory peripherals depend on electricity and connectivity
to function -- but so much else does today that I hardly see why this
is given so much weight in this particular case: The TVs, radios, CD
players, phones, mobiles, seismographs and heart-lung machines on which
our lives increasingly depend likewise depend on electricity and
connectivity. And with technology, all of it is becoming increasingly
wireless, ubiquitous and unobtrusive. The rest is merely about how
reliable and risk-free we decide to make it -- as well as how portable
and similar to what we are already used to (that's where VR comes in).

Where there's a will, there's a way. Despite the fact that they are
"wired" (though increasingly only remotely so), the digital media
are actually (thanks to Turing-Church) better equipped to store,
migrate, upgrade, preserve and keep reliably presenting to our senses
our cumulative literary legacy -- a legacy that, unlike, say, sculpture
or dance, with their essential analog components, is and always was
purely digital, i.e., just encoded bits -- and better equipped to do
so than any prior medium.

The internet is no more "ephemeral" than we choose to make it. What has
disappeared to date is our own fault, and we will remedy that, as
we put more and more of our intellectual eggs in that digital basket.
(Google has already retrieved 2 decades' worth of Usenet bits that I
for one had thought were lost forever.) It is merely our Gutenberg
habits and expectations that make us think "durability" is to be
equated with machine/power-independence and paper. Durability is a
matter of probability, and the new media can match the old odds, or
even beat them, if they (we) care to.

Stevan Harnad
Received on Fri Jan 04 2002 - 14:00:25 GMT

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