themes / The Cyberiad

A total recall or Big Brother’s digital eye?

Nikodem Bończa-Tomaszewski

Turning information into energy will introduce as much change in civilization as introducing script to oral communities. Technical revolutions tend to bring change to culture for both better and worse in the same time. Beatific dreams about the salvific role of Progress being the answer to all human problems have been always awoken into very harsh reality.

Progress and Tempting Possibilities

Not long ago digital possibility of digital archiving cultural heritage was merely a vision now it is becoming reality. The possibilities created by it are tempting: quick access to information, mass spreading of archival materials, easy usage of sources independent to place and time. These advantages should make us enthusiastically enter a digital revolution in archive field.

The shift from a vision to reality however is not a simple dream-come true. Technical revolutions tend to bring change to culture for both better and worse in the same time. Pure optimism would be unacceptable ignorance. It would prove lack of deeper reflection over the sense of the changes that push archives towards the digital era. Beatific dreams about the salvific role of Progress being the answer to all human problems have been always awoken into harsh reality. If we wish to avoid this mistake in our modest field we have to start thinking through the concept of “archive” from the beginning.

Information Becomes Energy

What is a digital archive ? How does it differ from an archive of an old type ? In order to answer these questions we must abandon the traditional approach to archive science still based on humanities and step forward towards the field of technology. Paradoxically, the essence of a digital archive does not lay in its digital attributes. The use of digital systems for recording does not constitute merely technological means allowing to convert information into energy – currently being a light beam or a stream of electrons. In a transistor computer the presence of energy or it’s lack (flow of current being present or not) allows the device to produce the most complicated data structures reduced to the 0 and 1 form. The dematerialization of information and the possibility to turn it into energy constitute the essence of the technological revolution. In order to be more precise the term “energetic archive” should be used instead of “digital archive”.

Since the creation of script until the middle of the 20th century storing data implied creation of tangible carriers. Information physically and substantially present in a form of hardback volumes, thick files arranged in endless rows seemed to be as durable as the carriers themselves. The tactile presence of these objects leads to some people’s disbelieve in durability of data stored on computers. They escape the senses, magically appearing and vanishing together with flows of electricity. Perhaps together with vanishing these flows of current the whole heritage stored in server rooms could be annihilated ?

The focus on energy in preserving records ousted the notions of “original” and “copy”. A digital copy perfectly equals a digital original. Materials are not copied anymore, they are cloned by changing the state of energy in optical fibres or hard drives. The obliteration of the distinction between an original and a copy being a release of information from its carrier is one of the engines driving the digital revolution. It guarantees a free flow of information.

It is very difficult to play a role of a prophet in one’s own domain but the thesis that turning information into energy will introduce as much change in civilization as introducing script to oral communities deserves a lot of attention. Following the predictions presented half a century ago by Stanisław Lem in Summa Technologiae (one of the most underestimated philosophical works of the 20th century) one can assume that digital data processing is barely an introduction to the development of technology of energy-based data processing. If one takes into consideration the well known natural method of transforming information by means of DNA code the prospects for technology development seem indefinite. Technically, DNA code is a self-forming information capable of shaping energy and organizing matter. A civilization based on science and technology, more or less openly faithful in the idea of Progress, will aspire to imitate this phenomenon by means of technology. Similar to how it was with the dream of flying in the past.

Sociology of Digital Archive Science

Sociology, which last century was designated the queen of humanities, is a field that can provide some conceptual framework to define the objectives of digital archive science. By analyzing the development of phenomena related to the so called “information society” (the term “information society” is very practical for research but technically it means a project of a technocratic utopia) sociology is capable of distinguishing certain trends and defining their consequences for society.

The process of digitalization of information begun together with the invention of computers in the middle of the 20th century. It gradually penetrated various fields. In the 1940’s it affected the military sector. Throughout the next decades it spread over science, corporations and state administration. After the invention of a CD, digitalization embraced entertainment industry, ten years later the media, eventually it entered into everyday life. Nowadays, practically every piece of information is digitally processed. This is how the model of society where every sphere of life is ruled by information was created.

The information-based pattern of civilization constitutes the end of the industrial era, which consisted of exploitation of natural resources and goods production, and paved the way to the knowledge-based economy. In the 1960’s modernization leading to the development of “information society” was seen in some countries as an element of national ideology. Nevertheless, the old patterns of state administration are still deep-rooted.

Digital Control

Continuing the absolutist approach to state, bureaucracy (including the military sector) used digital data processing devices to develop systems of controlling the society. The idea of Bentham’s panopticon described by Michel Foucault in his book “Discipline and Punish” has entered our reality. A prison building intelligently tracking every move of prisoners, which not long ago was completely impossible to realize for technical reasons, today has become a fact. Among only several examples of how states try to reach for supremacy and control of its society one can mention the creation by some states enormous and complex databases collecting various information about the citizens, the development of systems monitoring public places, gathering information about traffic or the circulation of contents and data on the Internet.

The information economy has developed independently to these ambitions of the public administration. Information has become subject to exchange in economic circulation. Thanks to digital data management quick and clear criteria of its market assessment emerged. Thus similarly to goods of measurable financial value the protection and control of information have become priority in market exchange. This change is illustrated not only by the increased patent control but also by closing of the so called source codes as well as by systematic aiming at expanding the scope of copyright protection (embracing nowadays the author’s lifetime as well as the 70 years following his death).

The first stage of creation of information society was in fact consolidation of the habits which emerged during the industrial era which led to the development of information monopolies. In practice it means that state institutions and companies had at their disposal enormous resources of information which continue to be closed to public. They are either completely restricted to confidential use or the access to them is strictly limited. Thus the stored information does not serve the society in any way. A flagship example of the tendency to monopolize information is a large number of the so called “orphan works”. These sources cannot be legally used because of a difficulty in ascribing them to particular author.

Release Archives

The nature of a digital archive is based on three assumptions: its main objective is to render information accessible, the access to the materials should be universal, independent to place and time (devoid of geographical, financial, technological barriers as well was of the barrier of professional knowledge), the archive must be open to public – it provides repositories accessible for everyone.

A digital archive becomes a highly important element of an information society. Guaranteeing a universal and open access to information a digital archive provides a counterbalance to all kinds of IT systems designed for surveillance and control. It can already be noted on the example of public documents stored in a digital version – called “electronic records”.

According to the liberal doctrine of openness of state activity unlimited access to public information, guarantied by Polish national law, is possible from the moment of creation of a given piece of information. Only some specific materials such as confidential ones or personal data are excluded from this rule. In practice however, the access to information saved on a sheet of paper is extremely limited and only particularly determined individuals will be able to enjoy this right.

Only replacing paper with a digital material will allow to eliminate most of these barriers. It will provide a free of charge access to information in any place and at any time. Thanks to digital archives electronic records would become accessible since the very moment of their creation. Citizens would be able follow directly the developments of their inquiries in state offices. These possibilities imply that in future electronic records pave the way for development of systems allowing citizens to control state and its agendas. Nobody likes to be controlled so public institutions will surely try to defend themselves from introducing such solutions as long as possible.

This reveals one a very significant feature of a digital archive. It cannot be understood as a repository of old information. Technology allows an immediate collection of materials at the moment of their creation. The principle according to which documents like wine have to mature in offices several decades in order to be later placed in an archive has lost its purpose. A digital archive belongs to the past and present in the same time. A digitalized piece of information stays vivid linking a collection of data into one constantly updated stream of materials.

Truth Under Avalanche of Knowledge

Thus understood digital archives will play the role of a freedom guarantee in an information society. Being entirely open to public they constitute balance to closed repositories created by the state. The information monopoly of the state and other institutions will collapse. We will be able to observe the activities of the “Big Broher” and his potential followers. From the perspective of people who value freedom of an individual it may seem as a perfect solution. It has however several irremovable handicaps.

Plato was already expressing his anxiety over the influence of information technology on individual wisdom. The father of European philosophy wondered if the creation of script will not devoid people of the personal capacity of independent reasoning and remembering. Easy access to information saved in the form of written text gives a fake sense of wisdom. It is worth noticing that the Greek philosopher was not alarmed by the fact that a piece of information saved in human memory becomes blurred over time due to the imperfections of human mind and eventually disappears at the moment of death. Preserving information is of secondary importance in the query for Truth. Storing archive materials and seeking for Truth are not interrelated.

What would Plato say about public and unlimited access to all sorts of knowledge stored in archives? The enormous resource which can be reached by means of electronic devices without any major effort would not kill the need for truth and wisdom ? It is difficult to provide a clear answer to these questions and even more difficult to predict its future consequences. The problem of plagiarism present in contemporary schools, where students hand in dissertations combined of scraps of information found on the Internet, embodies Plato’s anxieties expressed two thousands years ago. Digital information is easy however to compile and analyze. A relevant system of tracking borrowings would allow to distinguish creative individuals from those who cannot think independently. Such perspective on the other hand could please the author on an idea of a state gouverned by philosophers.

“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”

Information preserved by means of energy has one invisible property – it is “eternal”. The easiness and scale of coping digital data on the Internet makes once duplicated files stay “for ever” saved and open to public. The fears that one day the virtual universe may disappear are completely wrong: once a file has been copied it is much easier to save it than to erase. Every digital repository can be transferred to a different location with a guarantee of data accuracy. This means that in practice every digital repository will last as long as we provide it with a flow of energy.

The “immortality” of data combined with general access and efficiency of usage can make a digital archive become an “absolute memory” for a community who is in charge of it. Let’s take genealogical research for instance. In a traditional archive we are convicted to a laborious process of search in register books, flipping through indexes, deciphering handwriting. Genealogical studies for instance are complex and constitute a field restricted only for experts. Even if such research happens to be accomplished successfully one will not find out much about his ancestors lives. If he wants to learn more details concerning their biography it is necessary to search in different sources and thus to commence another stage of research.

These problems are alien to digital archives. Each enquiry brings an immediate, complete and exhaustive answer containing all sources available in the repository. In future it will lead to a novel consolidation of public memory.

A society which disposes of a digital archive will not experience fading memory of its ancestors. In a global village every piece of information will be recorded. Such a possibility will be very supportive for those whose ancestors lived glorious lives. But history does not consist of laudable moments exclusively. Conformably to its programmed procedures a digital archive will ruthlessly reconstruct every registered piece of information about the past. Thus it will eliminate the threat of burring the history.

Some will say that this will free history from lie and distortion and allow people to see it as it really was. Perhaps. But will the society be capable of living with the burden of absolute memory ? Maybe the past atrocities of modern times were possible to live through only thanks to oblivion? Will we be able to carry the eternal luggage of memory of our ancestors lives ? These problems will have to be confronted by the development of remembrance policy which seems to have a bright future ahead.


This article is a part of essay “From future to the past.The basic problems facing digital archival science” which is part of the book “National Digital Archives. Vision, project, people”. Title and subtitles were created by the editors of the website

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