To the Editor:
Kort Patterson's "Losing the Past" takes a rather narrow view of the production and transmission of knowledge. His first error, I believe, is confusing the mere accumulation of information with the production of knowledge. Knowledge and information are very different things; knowledge is the product of reflective thinking at a particular historical moment whereas information includes anything we might choose to record, from laundry lists to daily fluctuations in the price of pork bellies. Enterprising gamblers turn those fluctuations into useful knowledge by discerning a pattern, thus raising the exchange value of the information. There might even be contexts in which laundry lists have knowledge value - say as a part of a murder investigation or as an artifact of a little-known culture. But that doesn't mean laundry lists are worth preserving. Whether or not we choose to preserve records has a lot more to do with their exchange value than with the stability of the medium which preserves them. What we remember as a culture depends on what we count as knowledge.
Let me give another kind of example from my own period of specialization, the eighteenth century. A majority of the books published in England during the eighteenth century were collections of sermons or works of theology. There was a voracious appetite for the kind of knowledge those works represented. And yet most of them, with the exception of a few by Wesley or other important historical figures, are unread today. This is not the result of any technological failure - most of the books are accessible in library collections - but simple lack of interest. They no longer count as knowledge. Even the knowledge that we value from that period is often transmitted selectively and through paraphrase. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out some time ago, we no longer read Newton's books but rather textbook descriptions of his work. A physics Ph.D. might be blissfully unaware that Newton wrote more books on alchemy than physics. We pick and choose what we wish to remember far more often than it is chosen for us by the limits of technology. History is as much a process of forgetting as it is of remembering.
Even Patterson's history of information technology is at times a mishmash of dissimilar objects. Different technologies for preserving information have different functions and different positions in an economy. Virtually all of the information recorded on chalk slates is lost to us - but should we care? The fate of the 8-track tape tells us nothing about the longevity of the CD since it does not so much represent a developmental stage of information technology as a (failed) corporate strategy in the context of a particular historical moment. It's true that you might have difficulty finding a replacement 8-track player outside of a thrift store. But first of all, despite the short- lived "rage" for 8-tracks that Patterson mentions, they were never a dominant technology in the sense that vinyl was then or CDs are now. Nor did they successfully map out a new function in the sense that cassettes did. I might not be able to find an 8-track player if I wanted one, but I would have no difficulty finding something that will play my grandmother's 78s (her piano rolls might pose a larger, but not insurmountable problem - witness the recent release of a CD recorded from Gershwin's piano rolls). Moreover, the information on those 8-tracks is in no danger of being lost in the absence of 8-track players, unless there were a few disco tracks out there that never made it onto vinyl. A technologically skeptical friend recently replaced his 8-track with CD; he had no difficulty finding the same recordings of his favorite classical pieces. The music that might be lost to us from the period of the 8-track has far more to do with changing tastes than changing formats. The music that counts for us, whether it's Toscanini's recording of Beethoven's Ninth, or (shudder) Neil Diamond (at least as long as there are baby boomers), will be available on whatever format is dominant.
How we go about valuing knowledge is a vast area of inquiry that has far more consequences than the technologies of information preservation. If discs decay, it merely provides another marketing opportunity for technology corporations. But if certain kinds of knowledge become marginalized through the sort of marketplace censorship that Noam Chomsky describes so well, then they will disappear as thoroughly as those eighteenth-century collections of sermons. We even go so far as to actively suppress some kinds of knowledge. Consider the recent hysteria over Ebonics. Despite the fact that black English has long been recognized by linguists as possessing a distinct and regular grammar, most of our culture refuses to recognize the ability to speak it as knowledge. Evidently we prefer the approach once taken by the BIA schools, when Native American students were actually punished for speaking their own language. As a result, some native languages are even more defunct than an eight-inch CP/M disc.
As for the critical information Patterson worries will be lost for posterity by the decay of electronic media, I am at a loss to imagine what it might be. Surely the future does not depend on the billing records of the XYZ Corporation, or even on the right-wing ressentiment preserved by Port of Call. As always, we will forget what seems unimportant, and take pains to preserve what matters to us now.