Attention Historians of the Future

24 MB MP3

Chris’s Billboard

Surely you’ve wondered: what is it from the flotsam and jetsam of our everyday lives that’s going to reveal us to the archaeologists of 3005. Our patio furniture will tell a lot about our materials, our barbecue sociability, our outdoor leisure habits; the way we handle our laundry will also tell a story. Also the podcasts in which people are leaving ideas, for what they’re worth, but also accents, phrasing, unintentional context as fascinating to the future as the handwriting or watermarks on a letter home from the Civil War. Make it a first rule that it’s very very hard to tell what is going to leap out as interesting in a hundred or a thousand years. And then consider in a life drenched in information, what part of it will really inform and document the way we live now. On Open Source: The archives of our time, including the digital trail we’re leaving behind.

Jason Scott

Podcasting Archivist

Blogger, ASCII

[in studio in Cambridge]

Grant McCracken


Blogger, This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology & Economics

[in studio in Cambridge]

David Shapiro


Trash Collector

[by phone from New York]

Related Content

  • Might be good to have a news librarian. NL’s are specialty librarians who archive, preserve, and retrieve news media. Here’s one. I think if you talked to one you’d find that a lot of modern media is at risk for being lost. Locally our newspaper chain has stopped making microfilm, and doesn’t put all stories online. So the “first rough draft of history” is being shoved down the memory hole.

    Oh, and this topic is incomplete without a few words from Brewster Kahle of, no?

  • Who’s in history? Blogs change this equation.

    When I went to Italy I noticed that I couldn’t swing a cat without hitting something put up by some Medici. And it was great, because it is great when you can hire Michelangelo as your contractor.

    But visiting a church in Siena whose construction was halted by the Black Death, I thought, we know nothing about the parishioners or craftsmen — not even their names. Parish records were destroyed by fire in the 1500s.

    Yet I can go into the church and know what songs they sang and what readings they had. Churches are curiously democratic in that they preserve some of the cultural contributions of the poor. Would we have any Black music in this country previous to 1920 if it wasn’t for black churches, where people gathered and sang those songs each week, making sure they weren’t forgotten?

    Blogs, like churches, preserve the cultural goods of people who aren’t neccessarily at the top of the social order. (Not everybody, not yet, and perhaps not soon, and that’s too bad). The very thing that people bash on blogs for today — that it’s “the blathering of 13 year old girls” is precisely what it will be of value for to historians in the future. (And I would say to anybody who has that critique of blogs: “What’s your problem with girls? Why are they so worthless to you?”)

    Not everything will be saved. But more people, and more different people, are getting onto the historical record in the firstplace. Because their thoughts are getting set down somewhere there’s at least a chance that they’ll win the preservation lottery and someone will be reading them hundreds of years from now.

  • My family told me a great accidental time capsule story last week. It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday, and my relatives had come up from Florida to throw her a party here in Boston and take her on a tour of the neighborhood in Chelsea where she grew up.

    During the weekend celebrations, the family started talking about my grandfather’s furniture business in Worcester, which he ran until he retired in the late 70s. One day, he was asked to pick up a piece of antique furniture — an old desk — from a relative’s house. He enlisted my uncle to go over and get it. While they were lifting it, one of the wooden legs cracked. Suddenly, dozens of small capsules started pouring out of the leg. Puzzled by the pile of tablets on the floor, my grandfather picked one up and looked at it. It was a petrified children’s vitamin.

    After a few moments of puzzlement, they figured out what had happened. More than 40 years ago, when my mom’s cousins were just kids, they were given multivitamins to swallow. For whatever reason, they didn’t want to take them, so when their parents weren’t looking, they disposed of the pills by shoving them into a hole in the back of the desk. Day after day, week after week, they must have done this, allowing hundreds of vitamins to collect in the bowels of the wooden desk. It took a slip of the wrist and a crack of the wood to reveal their long-lost secret, giving “time capsules” a whole new meaning….

    Andy Carvin


  • Brendan

    Lisa, Andy, these are great stories. If you’re listening, can you call these in during the show tonight?

  • I am delighted by this show. I have found all Jason Scott’s projects to a precious resource. Particularly apropos timing for this show is the release this month of his BBS Documentary.

    The BBS world was our “online” life before the WEB. Its history is an incredible story along with its interface to the wild and uncommercial Internet. Our family ran a BBS for years. Nearly anyone I meet online who either ran or used a BBS during the 1980/90s has nostalgia for that world and appreciates the knowledge gained therein. I think we learned alot about freespeech and legal issues and threats to same and our own consequent activism during that time. I believe the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] was founded as a result of the FBI absurd harassment of SJGames BBS, for example.

    “BBS” –

    “USENET” –

    “FidoNet” –

  • I’ve been wondering what archeologist will find out about us by looking at what we leave. This show is great.

    What is it that we remember from the past and what will things that we leave tell about us. What does the record lose? If you take a podcast as a historical record of today who is it leaving behind? We loose the poor, technologically un-savvy (like the elderly). How do we respond to this?

  • Here’s a problem with using podcasts and videos as anthropological and archeological archives. It assumes a HUGE improvement in technology.

    Now granted, we’ve had a huge improvement in technology just in the last few decades. But right now there’s nothing that allows me to catalog, search, measure, compare, or organize the content of a podcast or video unless someone has MANUALLY cataloged it. Whereas I CAN do that with text.

    How do I search the podcasts of the web to find out how often people refer to “canned salmon” or Samuel Pepys?

    Also, as computer-based natural language processing gets better we may eventually be able to turn podcasts into text. But then they’re text! And much has been lost. The stuff that makes podcasts and video unique has no natural taxonomy for searching or organizing. In 100 years will I be able to do a Google search and gets hits on songs where they switch into a minor chord, or images of cars with rusty fenders?

  • Isn’t that the idea behind the Yahoo! video search? It works by searching through the closed caption feeds on television broadcasts. Yes, manually entered by an actual person, but you can pull the video by searching the text.

    When google (presumably) reinvents their search audio or image input should bring you a result, wouldn’t one think? 15 years ago I never imagined being able to know the title of a journal article and at 2 a.m. being able to read the article, published 10 years ago.

    I think your question about how do we “measure” or “compare” is perhaps more important. The board gamer’s podcast seemed to provide a little bit of information that might be useful for an anthropologist…the podcast Christopher played with the two boys and a parent seemed to be much less organized with less “good” information.

  • This is an immensely great topic, great because it raises existential questions.

    How do we derive meaning from the material things that we assume reveal certain elements about our lives?

    What I’m learning from this conversation is that collectors are great individuals with a keen eye to giving a head start to the historians of tomorrow. This question goes beyond the theme of “getting a life”; how do our quests manage to sustain relationships with significant others who may not share in their drive to archive?

  • a co worker related a story about cleaning out her late-husband’s room. he had a little key envelope carefully labeled “useless key”

  • Brendan

    fconte, can you elaborate? Tell you how you link the urge to archive to a personal relationship.

  • jc

    Don’t forget that regardless how many of these things we save, as with photographs, they will paradoxically help us forget things while reinforcing the memory of the particular subjects of the meduim. After the passage of enough time and enough referring to the “stored memories,” the past morphs into only the inevitably modified memories primed by these subjects plus the invented “ego aggravated” stories, the little lies we tell to ourselves about how we would rather remember it, how we would like people to remember us, the addenda we use to disguise the way it really was to enhance our “role” in history.

  • Sure Brendon

    I once collected newspapers and magazines before the Age of the Internet. They tended to clutter our apartment; my wife thought I was nuts even though I am an aspiring historian thinking that these first drafts of history would be useful some day. I did the same when I lived at home; my mother thought having so many newspapers around created a fire hazard.

    As for linking the drive to archive to a relationship, hmm I can’t answer that question. Maybe it’s something we should have discussed before getting married. My wife speed reads books and then has the gumption to throw or give them away which is blasphemy to me.

    Say hello to Chris; he has a knack for bringing alive a very “geekish” topic. I’m loving it!


  • davew

    I’m reminded of the excellent book A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller: we may not be remembered how we think we will be remembered; fragments of the record (be they written, audio, or video) may suggest something completely different than we intended.

    Newspapers have this problem, as we tend to take them as fact, ignoring the point that the author / publisher chose to document only certain aspects of the events that transpired, and may have reported them with a political or editorial agenda (even if not, the simple notion of writing only part of what transpires influences how it is remembered). Now take into account photos, podcasts, and video – what does it actually ‘say’ by itself? I liked the guest’s point when he pointed out the value of the letters would be much greater to future generations if an audio tape was created by the owner now, to give them context.

    Context is everything, and the value of building an archive of life as it is now is strengthened immensely when detailed metadata is added.

    Great topic; keep them coming!

  • Hi Brendan,

    Sorry I wasn’t able to call in – I got a call from a journalist wanting to talk digital divide stuff, and we chatted for nearly 90 minutes; couldn’t get the guy off the phone. 🙁

    btw, I’m off to the CTCNet conference tomorrow, which is one of the biggest community technology/digital divide events in the US; I plan to record a bunch of podcast interviews with local community tech activists. I’ll probably eschew my iTalk recorded for my laptop and Audacity, for the sake of listeners’ ears; meanwhile, I just recorded an olympus ds-200 digital audio recorder for better mobile recording, particularly when I got to Korea next week and West Africa in July…. -ac

  • Hey there, everyone. Jason Scott here.

    I’m glad everyone enjoyed the show; I know I certainly did. Christopher Lydon! It doesn’t get better than that.

    Lisa Williams: I made sure to mention Brewster Kahle’s project, just for you; for a while, there was some idle talk of hiring me but we couldn’t discuss it further since I’m inclined to stay in Boston and they would need me at the Presidio. Regarding your concern about news; most professional historians/researchers already know the importance of newspapers in research, even if in reality people don’t do a great job in archiving them (see: Double Fold, by Nicholson Baker); Grant and I were mostly (in this show) talking about the unexpected historical usefulness of the mundane. (Which is, ultimately, not all that mundane.)

    ksandre: Thanks for the plug of my other works, although they weren’t really the subject of this particular show. I gave Grant and Christopher Lydon a copy of it. Grant just finished a book too, I read at his weblog; “Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning and Brand Management”. Mr. Lydon didn’t know that Grant and I have never met before.

    plnelson: You strike at a fundamental question, which is, “how will we possibly be able to handle this information with the same ease that we handle books?” There are a wide range of answers to this, and I definitely fall in the “technology will be able to handle it” because I’m such a techno-nut, and I’ve seen the advances we’ve made, but beyond the debate, it doesn’t matter if we can or can’t achieve it easily, because right now the content IS being generated and an effort must be made to save it and pack it away, or we won’t have the content TO draw from.

    jc: I only agree with you so far, but yes, I am aware of the inherent issue of lies and minor lies told to ourselves even as we try to contain history; posed photographs and omitted details are all side-effects of the human mind’s approach to self-description. But I contend that unintended information and details slip in even with the best of efforts to contain things to a self-centered reality; and the more information, the better. Otherwise it’s all shamans and myths.

  • jonpetit: As I mentioned on the show, I don’t think we lose the poor and the elderly. What we see now is that the ability to record or capture people in photographs, video or other media is dropping in cost so far that people who can afford a pack of cigarettes can afford to do some recording. And people who want to record their elderly relatives and groups outside the mainstream don’t need a grant and an office in a college to do it.

    Regarding the relative worth of the two boys vs. the board gamer, I still contend we can’t know in 2005 which is going to be more worthwhile in 2050. So save both!

  • By the way, I’ve put up some quick snapshots I took before and after the show (too busy during; Mr. Lydon runs a tight ship!) which are here:

    If you remove the “.m” in a photo, you can get the full-blown massive size, perfect for printing and hanging up in your cube.