The authors define “intellectual creations” as human expressions embodied in text, music, or other forms of art. Increasingly, we encode these creations in digital formats that have extremely short life cycles. Eventually, backward compatibility is lost. Thus, after very little time, a digital encoding format becomes obsolete, and intellectual works encoded in the format may become irretrievable. In contrast, the cultural worth of an intellectual creation may not be realized for generations. Additionally, future generations must access artifacts, including intellectual creations, to understand a culture in historical context. We contend that technology – intensive storage and manipulation of data may result in an inability to gain this access. Technology creators have some responsibility to facilitate future retrieval through careful documentation, and by selective maintenance of hardware that may be required to access archival media.
How Do We Know About Past Cultures?
In engineering, Shannon (1948) described elements of a communications system: An information source generate data. A transmitter encodes information to travel over a channel through distance and time. At the other end, a receiver decodes the signal for the destination, which is the person or thing for which the message is intended. Since we are worried about humans, we consider them to be the source and destination. While parts of the transmission system have changed greatly over time, one could certainly argue that technology has caused the other portions of the system to change more rapidly than the human elements. Linguists, beginning with Ferdinand de Saussure, established semiotics as a science of signs, which likewise focuses on the sender and the receiver of a message. Semiotics also posited the arbitrary nature of the sign and looked at the ways human languages encode and transmit messages. (Saussure, 1974).
Physical artifacts that survive from the distant past reveal much about a culture, depending on their purpose and the quality of materials from which they are made. Our record from ancient civilizations is far from perfect, but archaeologists can construct some details about them from these clues.
Significant events have often been recorded in the living embodiment of a storyteller, and oral traditions still form an important part of many cultures. The historical record has often been related by language, as well as by performance (e.g., a ritual dance). Some of these oral histories survived long enough to be recorded in other more permanent media. However, not only have many oral traditions died with the last generation of storyteller, others have assumed inaccuracies and exaggerations as a result of being passed serially through generations.
As languages evolved and became standardized, it became possible to encode events in written form. Because writing has traditionally been the province of the learned few, written documents were recorded on long-lived media, and special care was accorded to their storage. Fortunately, many ancient documents have survived, albeit, with significant degradation. Given the constant change in a living language, when a culture dies, the language often dies with it. Language experts attempt to reconstruct meaning by looking for patterns that may establish types of words and contexts and similarities to more modern languages.
Key Terms in this Chapter
WYSIWYG: “What you See is What you Get.” A user display that shows text and graphical information exactly as it will appear in print or other subsequent distribution. This includes expressional and artistic variations of text fonts, such as italics, bold, and underlined text.
Semiotics: A theory of signs and the use of signs in languages. Semiotics posits the arbitrary nature of the sign and looks at how human languages encode and transmit messages.
Psychoacoustic Models: Models of human aural perception, especially with regard to the ability or inability to perceive signals that are masked by other signals.
Masking: In psychoacoustic models, the ability of a loud tone to block the perception of sounds or noise occurring in nearby frequencies.
ASCII: American Standard Code for Information Interchange. A standard method of encoding upper and lower case text and other symbols with a 7-bit code.
This work was previously published in Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology: edited by M. Khosrow-Pour, pp. 152-156, copyright 2005 by Information Science Reference, formerly known as Idea Group Reference (an imprint of IGI Global).
Wood Pulp: An inexpensive paper stock. Acid, used as part of the production process, frequently remains in the paper and causes its destruction. This destruction is rapid compared to paper made from fiber.