The Temporal Challenge of Gnosodecay

The challenge of history is helping humanity remember that which extends beyond the lifespan of a human generation:

It’s very common to see historians implicitly or explicitly assert that knowledge in their field increases over time. For example, in his 1962 masterpiece Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White Jr. assumes greater clarity from archaeological discoveries are yet to come: “Despite prodigious labours by Hungarian archaeologists, the stratification of Avar materials is not yet clear…[Avars] may well have been the first people of Europe to use the stirrup, but the time of its arrival is still uncertain.” Meanwhile, in a more recent article, nonprofit founder Jason Crawford writes, “I note at the outset that this is an old book, published 1925 and revised 1940. Probably a lot has been learned in the last 80 years and the following has already undergone revision, which I’ll uncover when I read more modern sources.”

The historian’s optimism rests on three promises. The first, expressed by White above, is that there are lost artifacts that can be recovered. Secret government records can be declassified, new construction will dig up an ancient tomb, a statesman’s grandchildren will find old letters in the attic and give them to a university, or archaeologists will find the ruins of an ancient temple complex. Such finds improve our understanding of the past, sometimes dramatically.

The second reason for optimism is that historians make better analyses of existing data as time goes on, as Crawford mentions above. After they make inferences from the available material, subsequent historians can take their best arguments and build on them while discarding flawed ideas which do not stand up to scrutiny. By standing on the shoulders of giants, the field will climb higher and higher, like in hard sciences such as physics or biology.

The third reason for optimism is the continued unfolding of history. After all, it is harder to see how an event fits into ongoing trends before those trends have had a chance to play out—time gives us perspective, and hindsight is 20/20. However, while the passage of time may give us a better understanding of a historical event’s effects on the future, it does not improve our knowledge of the event itself. Despite this limitation, knowing what happens next can make it easier to understand which events were important and why.

Archaeologists and Historians Can’t Defeat Entropy
If these three promises are met, then our knowledge of history is steadily increasing. How, then, could past events be so hazy today? Shouldn’t centuries of new finds, ongoing analysis, and knowledge of subsequent history mean that scholars of Henry VIII’s reign know what happened during that period far, far better than scholars of more recent events like the 2008 financial crash or the two world wars? Of course, we usually see the opposite.

These optimistic historians are writing epistemic checks that cannot be cashed. What the three promises leave out is that information is often lost. Firsthand witnesses and expert historians die after passing down only a fraction of their knowledge. If you investigate the 2008 financial crash today, chances are you can still interview someone who worked in finance or government who will give you information that has never been recorded. The information stored in people’s minds is still fundamentally accessible—for now. In a century, much of this information will be irretrievably lost.

In addition to people, books and artifacts are also lost to entropy in a hundred different ways. The cumulative effect of this destruction is immense, as illustrated by the records of classical civilization. “[T]oday we possess written fragments from only 13% of the ~2,000 ancient Greek authors known to us by name. This does not account for the authors we do not know, and only a small portion of the 13% figure consists of complete works.”

Preserving the ever-growing mass of historical material is too expensive to be practical, so when budgets run thin, even major libraries and archives will discard books and records by the hundreds of thousands. For example, the Manchester Central Library’s recent culling destroyed 210,000 to 500,000 “literary, commercial, educational and political records going back 150 years” with “no subject specialists involved in the process.” This is a standard library practice.

Artifacts are also lost in accidents like the 2018 fire that destroyed 92.5 percent of the 20 million items stored in the National Museum of Brazil, including the only recordings of now-extinct languages. Another example is the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire that destroyed 20 percent of the collection and damaged much of the remainder.

In recent decades, digital information has fared no better than paper. Between link rot and changes in software standards, tremendous amounts of digital information become inaccessible over the course of a single decade. The long-term preservation of digital archives remains a hope rather than a guaranteed fact. Even in optimistic scenarios, it would require ongoing effort and maintenance on par with the curation of printed information. As the development of the printing press illustrates, much better ways of recording information can often have only modest effects on how much information gets preserved centuries later.

While we’re waiting for the Library subscribers to make their presentation for the expansion of the Library, I’ve been thinking over the various possibilities that would allow us to help meet this challenge. We already have a few private projects that are underway, but my thought is that it may be time to create a second history-based subscription in which the subscribers, rather than the editors, decide which works are most important to preserve. This subscription would only produce three or four books per year, and would focus on more obscure or more pedestrian works of the sort that would be less likely to appeal to a general audience.

Essentially, a subscription with a primary focus on the True rather than the Beautiful. Which, naturally, would imply an eventual subscription with a focus on the Good, and the Bible project that many people have asked us to consider tackling.