Digital Alexandria, Part 2

More worrisome, however, is our current hubristic idea that all information not only can but should be digitized. Imagine a case where all the information except the stuff we can’t digitize, such as, say, the Pyramids at Giza and a few various megaliths ends up online as an incomprehensibly-long string of 1s and 0s.

Now let’s consider the Russell’s Paradox of the digital world: if we use the term “Internet” to refer to the abstract collection of all of the information in the digital world, then how many Internets do we need? Trust me, there’s a reason for this question, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Let’s say that we create two independent systems that are effectively like the current Internet. This means we have two Internets, the collection of which we can refer to as Internet Prime. Nevertheless, no matter how many independent Internets and Internets Prime-Prime-Prime, etc. we create, we can always create another overarching system on top of it.

This is spectacularly fragile, if we zoom out far enough. What we’ve done is put almost all of the information in modern human history into the Cloud, and we have our Internet Prime-Prime or whatever we’ve reached.

All it takes is a well-placed asteroid impact, sunspots, or some sort of wide-ranging electromagnetic pulse weapon. Then there we are, back in the (relative) stone age and having to communicate with such dubious, archaic technology as pen and ink. That is unless most of the factories that produce pens, ink, and paper are now shut down because they’re all run and managed by computers. Womp-womp.

Think about this: despite any sort of environmental problems associated with whatever horrible thing destroys the Internet, we’ve just been thrown back–practically speaking–into a place before the Industrial Revolution. We’d be lucky if the current paper books persist, which would put us at least at an intellectual (if not technological) level near where we are now.

However, imagine that such a catastrophe wiped out most of the population of the Earth and we had to rebuild. At some point, the Earth would be prosperous and populous enough to get the silly machines working again. At that point, some of the data might even still survive. However, remember that all these 1s and 0s need terminals to access them and specific software, designed specifically for these terminals, to turn the raw data into useful information.

What are the odds that all of these slots would line up to give Future Humans an information jackpot? Probably about the same luck as we’re having decoding those megaliths.

Let us not forget that when the Library of Alexandria burned, the Western World was plunged into the Dark Ages for over a thousand years. All it takes is one Black Swan event to reduce humanity to gibbering bands of warring illiterates–all within just a couple of generations–as we saw in Europe 1500 years ago.

Disaster scenarios notwithstanding, let’s be careful not to let the Cloud become the next Library of Alexandria.

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