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Wikipedia and the End of Archeology 256

Andy Updegrove writes "Far too much attention has been paid to whether or not the Wikipedia is accurate enough. The greater significance of the Wikipedia today, and even more for those in the future, is its reality as the most detailed, comprehensive, concise, culturally-sensitive record of how humanity understands itself at any precise moment in time. Moreover, with its multiple language versions, it also demonstrates how different cultures understand the same facts, historical events and trends at the same time. Today, archaeologists are doing digs to understand how people lived only 150 years ago, making guesses based on the random bits and pieces of peoples' lives that they find. In the future, that won't be necessary, as archaeologists are replaced by anthropologists that mine this treasure-trove for data."
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Wikipedia and the End of Archeology

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  • by MakoStorm ( 699968 ) on Thursday November 02, 2006 @05:25PM (#16694865)
    "We'll never again lose the Library of Alexandria"

    Sir, I think you give wikipedia far to much credit

  • by vindimy ( 941049 ) on Thursday November 02, 2006 @05:34PM (#16695017) Homepage
    As diaries are replaced with blogs, and letters are replaced with email, and telegrams are replaced with IMs and phone calls, a huge amount of information that might have survived previously as worn scraps of paper is destroyed as soon as it's consumed, thereby denying a window into the everyday culture of the time to future archeo- and anthropologists.
    ... but that has little to do with Wikipedia, which in fact is doing the opposite - it does not destroy information by being electronically published! Rather, it keeps track of all the previous versions of each article, at the same time allowing anyone (making representative sample really big) to edit the content so that it reflects their knowledge, opinions, etc. That's a huge plus. No other work in human history can claim to have ever done that.
  • by ampathee ( 682788 ) on Thursday November 02, 2006 @05:36PM (#16695071)
    Well, Wikipedia stores all edits, so future archaeologists will just have to rollback the Human Society [wikipedia.org] page by a few hundred/thousand years.
  • by MankyD ( 567984 ) on Thursday November 02, 2006 @05:39PM (#16695115) Homepage
    And if it is, where would I go to see what Wikipedia looked like last week? Last year? Five years ago?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Main_Pag e&action=history [wikipedia.org]

    I can't vouch that someone hasn't tampered with it, of course, but that's a whole different story.
  • by EmbeddedJanitor ( 597831 ) on Thursday November 02, 2006 @05:44PM (#16695229)
    Geeks, you have your head too far up your geeky arses. There is a world outside the internet. Maybe a world that does not count to you, but it is real.

    Likely way less than 1% of the world's population have ever contributed to wikipedia, and less than 10% have ever read it. It only represents a very narrow cross section of information, culture, whatever compared to what is available in written form or in artefact form.

  • by circletimessquare ( 444983 ) <circletimessquare AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday November 02, 2006 @06:11PM (#16695765) Homepage Journal
    if i lived in 106, if i wanted to record something, i would write it down on paper. it would therefore persist for decades, perhaps centuries. if i lived in 3000 bc, i'd write it on a stone tablet. then it would persist almost forever.

    but what if it is 1966 and i put it on a computer? well, by 2006, the technology, expertise, file format, and actual reading machines wuld be completely gone. in other words, records from computers from 1966 are less accessible to us than records from 1766 or even 3000 bc

    if it were 1706 and i wanted records from 1666, how hard would it be for me to locate and read them? now i'm going to give you a computer tape from 1966. good luck

    or howabout it is 2046, and i give you a CD burned from 1996: what's the state of the dyes on that CD in that year? exactly. now compare that to parchment from 1776. sure, it's somewhat decayed, but you can still make out what is written, with your own eyes, no other technology needed

    so yes, archeology IS going away. but not for lack of anything getting lost, but for the fact that things are getting completely lost, in a way they never did before: the media is becoming inscrutable to modern eyes, very fast
  • by volsung ( 378 ) <stan@mtrr.org> on Thursday November 02, 2006 @06:16PM (#16695867)

    The recording of history has seldom been democratic or representative. For much of the time we have been using written language, it has been the elite (in income or education) who have done the writing.

    But I think the original article submitter mistakes history for archaeology. Archaeologists study material culture of the past, and historians study the records of the past. They both try to understand what has gone before, but from different angles. Wikipedia will be of interest to future historians. The server room which houses it will be of interests to future archaeologists.

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Thursday November 02, 2006 @06:37PM (#16696205)
    Interesting point, and I appreciate the work you put into it, but I disagree. All those physical layers don't matter much with digital information, because changing formats is so easy - as easy as burning a DVD [zdnet.com.au]. The achilles' heel of the library of Alexandria was that there was only one copy.
  • No... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Curmudgeonlyoldbloke ( 850482 ) on Thursday November 02, 2006 @08:02PM (#16697325)
    But the era of "consciously" recording something is (nearly) dead. A few years ago you might find something out and "store" that bit of information so that it was available next time you needed it (say - a recipe for Christmas Pudding). Storage was expensive in terms of time or effort, so it didn't happen to everything. These days storage is not only cheap, it's often automatic. If I want to know what I was working on a year last Thursday it's easy to find out - I think that I last saw a paper diary about 10 years ago, so a year last Thursday is as accessible last week in terms of what was written down at the time.

    In thirty years time, we won't be struggling to find out what a particular band sounded like in 2010 by trying to restore rotting CDs or breaking some long-forgotten DRM system - there'll be a thousand and one personal records of every performance still flying around as "live" data, taken using people's mobile phones (or whatever has replaced mobile phones in 2010).

    The way that we know what a lot of (British) TV programs in the 1960s and even later isn't because they were "officially preserved" at the time - unofficial audience recordings and tapes "rescued" from bins have had a huge role to play (see http://www.televisionheaven.co.uk/missing.htm [televisionheaven.co.uk] for a few examples). The future's just like that, only more so.

  • by s20451 ( 410424 ) on Thursday November 02, 2006 @10:26PM (#16698801) Journal
    The achilles heel of modern storage is thermodynamics. We can read text chiseled in stone over thousands of years, because stone is very stable. In modern ultradense storage devices, even the natural thermodynamic properties of the material will cause degradation over time.

    It would requre a comparatively short disruption of human society, on the order of years to decades, to lose the technology to read contemporary DVDs; in the time it may take to recover that technology, even if it is also on the order of years to decades, contemporary DVDs may have degraded to the point of unreadability.

    This is in fact much less reliable than any other system in the history of mankind! It doesn't matter if you have zillions of copies since (unlike, e.g., the Rosetta stone) they all have to be completely refreshed every 20-30 years. A worldwide century-long dark age would have the nasty side effect of erasing all the electronic "books", too.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 02, 2006 @11:11PM (#16699103)
    For instance (IMHU) there was a particular tablet that was required to understand Ancient Egyptian. IMHU = In my honest understanding.
    I think you just proved why future generations won't be able to read anything we write.
  • by shoemakc ( 448730 ) on Friday November 03, 2006 @12:47AM (#16699635) Homepage
    History has shown us that technology evolves through several stages:

    Idea --> Refinement --> Maturity.

    This holds true for everything from software to toasters. A new idea breeds a (generally poor) initial implimentation, which becomes refined with time and as each refinement brings less and less of an improvement, it reaches maturity.

    Paper didn't reach it's level of maturity overnight, clearly it took centuries if not millenia of experimentation over what types of paper worked best, how to make it, inks, size, thickness....developing written languages to :::use::: on it.... It's very easy to look back and see paper as more polished because all of the "rough" years have been lost to history.

    Now consider the digital age. It's true, data from the 60's is probably harder to recover then form the 1800's. However one has to keep something in mind: the digital age is quite new and is still going through that polishing stage. Evidence of that polishing is around...realiablity has improved drasticly, and the move has been towards open data storage formats that don't become a mystery the momment a single company goes bankrupt.

    And as a previous poster mentioned, consider for a momment how the capacity for infinite reproduction changes things...more eggs, more baskets.


Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later. -- F. Brooks, "The Mythical Man-Month"