more thoughts on Cultural Loss: Cultural Entropy

you might have read Mikes last entry about the preservation of culture here. and he does raise interesting points and whilst I agree with him, that cultural artifacts need to be preserved, I kind of disagree that culture is defined by artifacts

In my view culture is an all-encompassing set of tools we use to consume culture and interact with other members of our cultural group. Having a great play or book is fine, but if you don’t understand the language spoken or even the concepts of reading and writing then it becomes meaningless squiggles on a page.

how about this for an example of loss of cultural knowledge

and this is technology that’s not that old!

A lot of things we take for granted are culturally ingrained in us. As members of a western culture, we read from right to left, front to back, we use a knife and fork with the knife in the right hand.we drive on the left . Some of these are ingrained at an early age and some we learn later.  However they sort of set out a set of rules we can use to understand the country we live in. for example here in the west we predominately used knives and forks, but there are regional variations.

Ok, so certain aspects of our life are culturally ingrained and learned, over time these can change in the same way as languages change and evolve over time. and this, like all culture are inherently ephemeral. languages fall out of use, spellings change, and attitudes that might be culturally learned can also change, but this takes time.  one hundred years ago, our view on women in the workplace was radically different from today, heck homosexuality was illegal in the Uk until 1970 and whilst things are a lot better now, there’s still room for improvement

Some cultural changes don’t seem to last long or can change,  for example, during the height of the Roman Empire, the most widely spoken language would have been Latin, whilst this would have been cultural change enforced by a conquering empire, its possible native languages spoken in the empire would have been stamped out. in order to have a standardised form of communication across the Empire, Fast forward a couple thousand years and Latin is no longer spoken widely and joins a whole collection of dead languages including Prakrit

Even more sturdy cultural artefacts like paintings or sculptures can disappear. store a painting in incorrect lighting conditions and the paint will fade off the canvas. Museums will regularly restore old painting to maintain them. The Mona Lisa originally had eyebrows, but successive generations of restorations have effectively removed them. musical instruments can go out of style. There’s not many people who play the  crumhorn these days right?

A collection of Crumhorns
A collection of Crumhorns


On paper, the ink used to write or print manuscript will fade in direct sunlight. Stone will get worn down over wears of being rained on or blasted by sand storms. metal rusts or corrodes, Theatre plays and choreography goes out of fashion – when was the last time you saw a Busby Berkley style dance sequence with thousands of dancers ? Or did you know Eric Chappel who wrote ‘Rising Damp’ also wrote a bunch of plays including such titles as ‘Wife after Death’ and ‘Theft’? early film is on celluloid which is highly flammable and under certain conditions, explosive Records scratch and tapes and become warped. A lot of primitive civilisations, didn’t have writing, relying instead upon an oral tradition to preserve stories and lore. My good Friend Chip over at Snail Tales, travels the world as a storyteller, telling stories, but more importantly listening to stories. and then telling other people those stories.I guess the thing is that any cultural artefact has a shelf life and that often these artifacts where not designed to last so long, The neolithic man who made this:

Neolithic axe
5,500-year-old Neolithic axe

never for a second thought:

stone axe

as far as he was concerned it was important that he had an axe there and then. After he was done with it or it broke he threw it away and made a new one. But the ones that lasted and lasted became valued. There were 200,000  copies of Action Comics#1 printed that sold for 10¢ in  1938.  Kids bought them and read them and then later they were thrown away because at the time it was seen as a disposable item with little value. Comic books were used as ballast on cargo ships which is how us Brits got hold of American comics in the 1940s and 50’s. It’s also the reason  Siegel and Shuster got relatively small fee of $130 for a little strip in there about a certain superhero called Superman. In July 2014, a copy of that book sold at auction for $3.2 million

Here’s another example. earlier this year, 11 previously unseen artworks by Andy Warhol was found on Amiga disks. Thing is, everyone and his dog had an Amiga back in the day. It turns out the graphics format was for an obscure piece of software called GraphicCraft.  Luckily a converter was written and the previously unseen art work can now be enjoyed again. You can read about the process here.

Guess what  I am saying is that cultural artifacts need to be preserved, if only for the sake of future generations. and for many things this means scanning or importing into a computer and uploading to the cloud. But even this is marking time, as transferring from one media to another still has problems and the new media will also deteriorate over time. Strangely enough, the best way to preserve a cultural artifact is to actually enjoy it. Georges Méliès burnt all the copies of his films, but he didn’t get all of them. And many years later,  fans of his work turned up with copies of films, thought lost forever. The same happens now and then with re discovery of a lost Doctor Who episode. So now we have access to these long-lost films and episodes like “The web of Fear” and “The Faceless ones”.  After a little restoration they look as good as when they first aired and can be viewed online – safe in the cloud.

Ultimately though,  one day the internet or cloud storage could be a thing of the past, If it becomes too expensive for ISPs or companies like Google and Dropbox to offer internet access or cloud storage then they will stop the service. They are not charities, they exist to make money and if there’s no money in being the planets attic then they will close the service down. UbuntuOne is such an example of a cloud storage system that has had its plug pulled and that was from a good, open-source freedom loving company like Canonical.

It may well  that the best method we have of storing culture in the cloud could be its undoing. If we suddenly shifted into a post Internet society where all the cloud data might still be on harddrives but not accessible, what would we do?  would we sit around camp fires telling each other stories about the mysterious songs of D’ayallup Modem and the gods of weefee.  well, at least for as long as we remember the stories.