RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This week, we're taking a closer look at the future of history. This field of study is changing rapidly because of new technologies and shifting expectations. This morning, author Eric Weiner examines one scenario where future historians look back at our time and find nothing.
ERIC WEINER, BYLINE: Consider the most exhaustively researched historical figure in the land - Abraham Lincoln.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LINCOLN")
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Abraham Lincoln) Abolishing slavery by constitutional provisions settles the fate for all coming time.
WEINER: Stephen Spielberg's take in the movie "Lincoln" was based on the reporting of renowned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She dug through thousands of documents, letters and photographs.
VINT CERF: Imagine a 22nd century Doris Kearns Goodwin who's trying to figure out what happened in the beginning of the 21st century.
WEINER: Vint Cerf, an early Internet pioneer, is now a senior executive at Google.
CERF: And she's got what? Well, is there any email anywhere? Are there any drives that can read somebody's CD-ROMs or their floppy disks, or, you know, what about the hard drive that was in a laptop that's sitting in the closet for the last 50 years and pretending we can turn the machine on? You know, does anything actually work?
WEINER: We may be drowning in data today, says Cerf, but future historians might look back at our time and find a gaping hole - a digital dark ages.
CERF: I literally mean a dark age. The information is gone. It's inaccessible. It's uninterpretable.
WEINER: In other words, the future might sound something like this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking in Old English).
WEINER: That is English - Old English - a reading from the epic poem "Beowulf." We know what these strange words mean because thankfully a handful of scholars can still read Old English.
CLIFFORD LYNCH: It is like a lost language. But it's on a kind of a different scale.
WEINER: Clifford Lynch is director of the Coalition for Networked Information. Digital preservation is more complex than the "Beowulf" problem because it requires more than simple translation. News sites, for instance, are now customized. One person's experience reading, say, The New York Times website is not the same as another person's. How do you preserve that or video games or other remnants of our digital lives? It's an extremely difficult problem to solve, but that hasn't stopped some from trying.
MAHADEV SATYANARAYANAN: This was very cool, very cool vision.
WEINER: Mahadev Satyanarayanan, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, runs the very cool Olive project. It all began when Satyanarayanan was experimenting with a new computing technique called Internet suspend/resume. Then he had an idea.
SATYANARAYANAN: You know, Internet suspend/resume is about traveling across space seamlessly. Could you travel across time seamlessly? Could I suspend in 1993 and resume in 2015?
WEINER: Are you talking about, in a way, a sort of time travel?
SATYANARAYANAN: Yeah. And so one way to think about Olive is one-click time travel.
WEINER: Using this time travel technique, he's managed to recover long-lost video games and other digital artifacts. Other archivists, though, say the biggest hurdle to long-term preservation is not technical.
BREWSTER KAHLE: It's not technical, no. It's institutional I would say.
WEINER: That's Brewster Kahl, founder of the Internet Archive, the most ambitious project of its kind. Kahl is aiming to build a modern digital version of the great Library of Alexandria. Working out of a converted church in San Francisco's Mission District, Kahl and his team take snapshots of nearly every page on the World Wide Web every two months. They can't capture everything. Paywalls and other institutional roadblocks get in the way. But so far they've amassed more than 400 billion web pages, two million videos and, among other things, 9,000 recordings of Grateful Dead concerts. Kahl makes all of this available online for free on what he calls the Wayback Machine.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Mr. Peabody) The Wayback Machine, my incomparable invention for traveling through time, has been set for the year 1513.
WEINER: At first, says Kahl, the Wayback Machine was a tough sell.
KAHLE: When we started the project, people just thought we were crazy or that you couldn't do it, that it's impossible to do or why bother. And I think that has generally evened out because it's used by so many people now.
DAVID KIRSCH: It's a marvel.
WEINER: David Kirsch is a historian and professor of business at the University of Maryland.
KIRSCH: I thought he was crazy when he started it. I thought what a silly thing. And since then I have used it hundreds and hundreds of times as a scholar to try and recover the past.
WEINER: Not just any past.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) What goes up...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Try to get it. Try to get it. Try to get the burger.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) ...Must come down.
WEINER: Kirsch's particular interest - his obsession - is the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Pets.com because pets can't drive.
WEINER: The fact that he's managed to save so much from these forgotten go-go years helps explain why he takes a more sanguine view about the future of history.
KIRSCH: The fear of the digital dark ages is a little misplaced 'cause I think the things that we do save, we're going to get really close to. Whatever ones and zeros do survive, we're going to have very intimate knowledge, but, again, for certain questions.
WEINER: And that, historians say, is the key to fending off a digital dark ages. Not saving everything - we've never done that - but preserving a wide spectrum of contemporary life, even the silly bits.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "NO NO NO CAT")
UNIDENTIFIED CAT: (Meowing).
WEINER: Take the ubiquitous cat video. We might consider them trivial, but archivist Deanna Marcum says historians have always strived to save slices of our quotidian lives.
DEANNA MARCUM: If you want to know what a chatbook looked like, you can find one in a library. If you want to know what an old comic book looked like, you can find one.
WEINER: So we should save some cat videos.
MARCUM: We should save some cat videos. That's part of our culture. But we shouldn't save a million cat videos.
WEINER: Preservation, she says, shouldn't be left to chance. And that is what's largely happening now. Some things are saved; others lost - data from some of the Apollo moon missions, websites from the 2000 Sydney Olympics and much more.
KAHLE: Oh, the story of - well, of life, is just lost.
WEINER: Again, Brewster Kahl, founder of the Internet Archive.
KAHLE: I've learned to not cry over having things disappear and more rejoice on the things that are being kept care of.
WEINER: For NPR News, I'm Eric Weiner.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.