At the end of the New York Times article detailing the decision by Twitter to de-platform president Trump, there is a short note that hides a real, and vexing problem:
Beyond muting Mr. Trump’s biggest megaphone, Twitter’s decision could create headaches for the Trump administration when it comes to complying with the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which requires the preservation of presidential materials and communications.Conger, K and Isaac M “Twitter Permanently Bans Trump, Capping Online Revolt” NY Times 2021-01-09
This is a bigger problem than it may seem. Imagine you are writing the history of this moment in 100 years or so – what are your source materials? How do you understand the crumbling of the shared reality of our polity? What means do you have to assert if the popular hypothesis that this was all about “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” really is born out by the evidence?
For the record, I think that all technology does here is to increase the distinction between what Julia Galef calls soldier mind and scout mind (this Long Now Foundation video is a must watch!) – and that the choice to believe what unifies a group is a natural, although harmful, choice that has evolutionary roots — and that this in turn means that our challenge is that when we build shared cognition to find ways to counter act not technology-driven filter bubbles as much as evolutionary patterns of thinking.
That is a significantly harder problem and may even say something about the possible sizes of shared cognition that we can sustain as a society — how large can an episteme, a shared set of facts, be in both number of items and number of actors? What is the maximum size of an episteme that can be the foundation of a polity? What kinds of shared cognition can support a democratic polity? These are important questions and the require that we have access to and can study the emerging patterns of shared cognition in our society – and like it or not, Twitter is a form of shared cognition – the study of which will be essential to understand our options of institutional design for future democracies.
But none of this will be possible if we allow what Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet, has called “bit rot“. Our digital behavior is eroding faster than behavior that requires paper or other media, and it is eroding in several dimensions. It is eroding in noise, noise working as an acid that slowly eats away at any semblance of a canon or mainstream set of data, and it is eroding in deletion where data is deleted consciously or through everything from mechanical failure to loss of formats, applications and operating systems.
In many ways we live in a paradox, an amnesiac information society where knowledge is key but ultimately ephemeral and bound to be lost.
There is value in ephemerality, and some applications thrive on designing it – the social media posts that evaporate after a few days or few clicks serve a purpose, and SnapChat deserves special credit for first thinking seriously about how much of our social behavior that is usefully capture for the sake of our autonomy and self-determination, but the reality is that very little of ephemerality is consciously designed.
The opposite of designed ephemerality is conscious curation. It is alarming to see that not only do we not design our ephemerality, we also have lost the will and capability to consciously curate the data that we produce. Digital preservation efforts without curation will lose something important, the emphasis and articulation of our age in the historical record. What we save is essential for understanding who we are, and what we value. And what survives anyway will speak volumes of our prejudices and blind spots.
One useful frame or concept here is that of the “archive”. As detailed in this recommended paper by Marlene Manoff, the concept of the archive recurs across disciplines as a version of everything from externalized human memory to the source of power. Philosopher Michel Foucault suggested that the archive is really the set of institutions and technology that allows us to think through participating in the discourse of our time – and so implicitly suggesting that control over the archive is control over a society. Societies that lose any ambition to archive, to remember or to carry a discourse will never be able to build that common framework of facts – because we do not think in facts as much as we do in narratives.
This is important, I think. Any attempt at reinstitution of a shared framework of facts will fail unless it is grounded in an archive and a practice. There is no world in which is effective to just tell people what the facts are. That never helps. What you need to be able to do is to allow people to navigate in the world and find a compass to allow them to find their way. Truth may not be so much believing certain propositions as engaging in certain practices.
Consciously curating this moment seems key, and a large part of that is all of the commentary that is written and shared through newspapers, magazines, blogs etc — but a longer curation, a slower curation where data is saved for future research and analysis is largely missing. If we don’t have that – if we allow this moment to be lost in time, refusing to archive it together, we risk not just the trite “repetition of history” supposedly inflicted on those who refuse to learn from it, but a more foundational loss of history that slowly will erode other democratic institutions our powers of shared cognition are increased without the archive to give us a north star.