Published March 14th, 2012 by Future Atlas
At the individual level, personal information used to be decentralized and at least somewhat resilient: it was held on paper, which could last for centuries if looked after. Knowledge of the outside world, if it was kept, typically resided in books. Many families owned a store of reference books, often including encyclopedias. Civilizational information was decentralized too, residing in libraries, archives, and government document stores in countless places.
Now we think of information as decentralized, as it comes to us through any networked device, and we can even contribute to the total store of information ourselves, at least at the margins. We are, however, mistaking access for location; we typically don’t know where the information we are using actually resides.
I was reminded of this today, when we learned that Encyclopedia Britannica is going to stop being printed, changing to a Web-only format.
Does it matter that that people have access to huge amounts of information, but only remotely? Personal and civilizational information is becoming more centralized, and thus vulnerable, as it concentrates in vast server farms. An act of sabotage or war, or even a tech glitch, could endanger an increasing proportion of the world’s knowledge. (Political manipulation and distortion are also growing risks, but more on that later.)
The situation is more dire if you expect civilization to collapse or degrade, as many in the resilience community seem to: all that information will be as good as gone without computers, networks, and electricity. This seems low-probability, but I am still tempted to keep my three-volume set of The Boy Mechanic (1919), with projects like “a small working pile driver.”
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Photo courtesy gfpeck (Flickr)