Writing History in a Paperless World: Archives of the Future
By Ravinder Kaur
History Workshop Journal, Issue 79 (2015)
Introduction: The centrality and certainty of paper has for long been a given in our imagination of archives. The carefully preserved documents – books, files, notebooks, private letters, identity cards, memos, index cards, charters, declarations, petitions – all neatly numbered and catalogued – are intricately tied to the idea of archives. Paper as the primary medium of documentation, record and knowledge circulation has recently been the subject of extensive scholarly attention. Consider Lisa Gitelman’s rich historical account of the life of the document in paper and near-paper form, or ‘paper knowledge’ as she calls it, and how it offers a detailed insight into the inextricablility of materiality of paper from the art of documentation. The well-established association of archives with dust on paper documents and government custody of those has been rigorously explored. Paperwork – its very nature, its contradictions and unpredictability and how it underpins the edifice of bureaucracy – is the subject of two compelling pieces of historiography: Ben Kafka’s account of eighteenth-century France during the Revolution and Matthew Hull’s history of government in urban Pakistan in mid twentieth century. Just as we begin to understand the work of paper in organizing our lives, the spaces we inhabit, and the ways in which we interact with public authorities, we seem to be entering a paperless world increasingly defined by biometric identification, digital documents, instant messages, and a new form of public sphere via social media performed on the Internet. It seems the usual paper trail that the present leaves behind for the historians might be thinning out, or at least jostling for attention and space in competition with its digital form.
The question I want to pose here concerns the form of archives that will be available to the historians of the early twenty-first century. Or put differently – what will be left behind of the contemporary present in lieu of paper for the future historians? The larger question relates to the project of history writing, or how we might rethink the notion of the past itself in an accelerated digital era of fast-moving social media. To be sure, concerns about the archives of the future have been raised in different forms before. Already more than a decade ago, the historian Roy Rosenzweig warned about the problems of ‘preserving our digital cultural heritage’ given that ways to archive the digital present were still at the development stage.
He articulated this around the dual problem posed by rapid digitalization – the overload of information on one hand, and the scarcity of archival records on the other. In 2003 when Rosenzweig pointed out the problems of future archives to his fellow historians, the digital world was still gathering steam. His worries about the ‘rapid accumulation of data’ at that point, for example, stemmed from the increasing presence of Google search engine, and how it indexed and ordered websites and returned large amounts of information to search queries. When Google was started in 1998, it received about 10,000 search queries each day; by 2004 that figure had grown to 200,000. In the intervening decade, however, the speed and extent of Google search engine has multiplied at an unimaginable scale. In 2014, Google processed an average of 40,000 queries per second, 3.5 billion queries per day, and 1.2 trillion queries per year. The size of the Internet itself has grown exponentially in the meanwhile – from a single website in 1991 to about a billion in 2014.