Immutability and Mobility in Knoweldge Media

All knowledge media (e.g. books, lectures, apprenticeships, movies, newspapers, digital and multimedia documents, weblogs, laws carved in stone, laws entombed in volumes preserved in libraries) can be categorized along "mobility" and "immutability" dimensions.

While some media (such as digital, multi-media documents) provide for great mobility, our reliance on their immutability proves sketchier than our trust in the immutability of physical, paper documents. When my paper arrives at my door every morning, I'm quite certain it was not changed between the moment of publication and delivery.

What matters in determining the stability of a given knowledge media is the balance it strikes between immutability and mobility.

Hammurabi's Laws, carved on stone, have certainly demonstrated how immutable and lasting, through time, they can remain. (See also Iraq Museum International.)

On the other hand, many corporate workers have (mobile) access to their e-mails almost everywhere but different corporations institute varying policies regarding the length of time or the amount of space (or both) they will allow for archiving of e-mails. If a corporate policy says that e-mails beyond a certain time (or space) are going to be discarded, we actually have to reconstruct our worlds periodically over large time intervals to determine what to keep and what not to in order to increase their chance of survival. While much important material is now exchanged through e-mails, it is highly unlikely that all important e-mails will survive or that we will have a reliable, social aptitude for determining what digital document deserves replication into the future. The decision will be made, often, by programs.

Physical letters that matter, on the other hand, prove easier to identify and will probably have a better chance of surviving through hundreds of years. Their physical form already speaks volumes to their importance. (What sort of paper was used? Who was writing to whom? What sort of ink did they use? What sort of pen?) One can argue that they can even be "found" more easily because as time passes, their existance gives evidence to their importance. In an electronic archive, on the other hand, the degree of a document's importance remains quite hard to determine, particularly because of the lack of context that a physical object carries with itself.

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Comments:

This is all absolutely fine so what would you be suggesting for the sake of future civilizations you stop using digital media which is not "immutable" and we stick to paper and rock carvings? I think the guys which carved on stones said the same thing when they saw people writing on paper, "hey why are you using paper its fragile , disintegrates , is flammable and wont last as much as our stone carvings". But do you see many people carving on stones these days?....no! Paper took over just like now digital media is taking over, the idea being the need to structure data into chunks of usable information which can be easily accessed by concerned entities. Over the years we translated texts from ancient stone carvings to paper , now we have it all in digital format. Am sure in the next couple of decades/centuries some other form of document archiving will take over. You talk about emails being discarded and you have to reconstruct your world over a period of time, dont you think that this happened before in the ancient times?.......whats important is that the useful information survives..information from which humanity can benefit from. Anyways its a nice debate, i think everyone has his own view on the subject. kind regards, Javed

Posted by Javed Mandary on April 20, 2005 at 03:07 PM PDT #

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