In the age of the Internet and ubiquitous information, we’ve been told that it won’t be long before we’ll be able to store the sum total of human knowledge digitally, and have it accessible anywhere in the world instantaneously. But I believe that the best way to preserve and transmit human knowledge from age to age is print on paper.
First, there are very few human-made things the behavior of which we’ve been able to study over long periods of time. Periods of time like millennia. But I have studied books that are well over 1,000 years old. I’ve cataloged books printed before 1500 that I could read – barely! – because they were printed in Latin.
Second, throughout the evolution of this technology from inscription into clay tablets in ancient Sumer, to the carving and painting onto stone in dynastic Egypt, all the down to the development of the printing press and movable type, there has not been any intermediary technology imposed between the reader and what is read. I think of Michael Ventris, who, having deciphered Linear B, was able to walk through the excavated ruins of Knossos and be the first to read and understand the inscriptions there for nearly 2,500 years. He didn’t have to boot anything up, access any special operating system, or need any special software.
The same is true today: all you need are your eyes and knowledge of the language. Finally, we’ve been using this technology long enough that we know what works and what doesn’t. I have a book in my personal library printed in 1685. It’s written in English, so I can read it just as well as anyone could 323 years ago when it was printed. To say the world is different today that when this book was printed is an understatement, but that’s part of what makes the transmission of this information through the ages so inspiring.
Computers have been around less than 60 years. Even broadly distributed electrical grids have been around less than 150 years. Formats for the storage and transmission of information change as quickly as fashion. Print on paper is lasting, and will remain for some time to come the best way we’ve discovered in the history of civilization for preserving and transmitting that very history from age to age.