“That’s okay,” yes, but…

Reading “Future Historians Probably Won’t Understand Our Internet” put me through a whirlwind of emotions, which changed (almost) as quickly as the temperature on a spring day in Amherst. At first, I was sad and disappointed– we won’t be able to preserve our experiences for future generations? People who live a thousand years from now won’t understand what each and every human being experienced when they logged onto their Facebook? What do they mean, there’s no “canonical” version of Twitter? Thinking about the constantly fluctuating form of digital products made my head ache, made me feel wistful. But then toward the end of the article, the archivists noted that this is actually the historical norm. It has never been possible to document the experience of each and every person, and it has had to be okay, because we could not have it any other way.

Then I began to wonder why we should even care about preserving things as individuals experience them. Preserving things is valuable, of course. It will serve to inform future generations, so that they may learn about their own histories in an attempt to understand themselves and their world. But things as individuals experience them? That has never been as valuable. Let me clarify. Individual, personal experiences of physical things or historical events are valuable, because they help us understand how humans reacted to these things at the time, which more broadly reflects upon the nature of society at that time. They also help us empathize with past human beings and apply our knowledge of past events/things to our own world. So, The Diary of Anne Frank helps us understand the Holocaust, how the people of the mid-20th century understood the Holocaust; it helps us empathize with its victims and resolve to never tolerate such horrid genocides. But each and every individual experience of something? Not as important. We do not need six million Diaries to fulfill these purposes. Yes, each person’s story deserves to be heard and honored. Yes, each person experienced the Holocaust in different ways. But in light of the ultimate purpose of historical artifacts, it is clear that to preserve each and every single individual experience of the same thing would require efforts that would far outstrip their usefulness.

Which is to say: I agree that “future historians probably won’t understand our Internet, and that’s okay”– because it will probably be enough to understand the big picture of our Internet, supplemented by the individual experiences of a few people, in order to serve the bigger purpose of historical remembrance.

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