arnoud glaudemans, rienk jonker and frans smit documents, archives and hyperhistorical
societies: an interview with luciano floridi
simultaneously - writing was invented. Since then, we have been increasingly living
in information societies. Only a few people in the Amazonian environment still live
prehistorically. Today, if we describe history as our interaction with information and
communication technologies from writing to press, printing, the radio, cinema,
mass media and so forth - we have exponentially increased our dependence on these
technologies to the point where, with the advent of digital, our dependence on
technology is absolute. In some corners of the world we live more 'historically' than
ever before. The wellbeing of the individual and the welfare of the society is no longer
just historically related to ICTs it is dependent on them, hyperhistorically. In many
places in the world and certainly in Europe the proper functioning of society
depends on digital infrastructure. This means they could be subject to cyber-attack, a
good test to understand whether you live hyperhistorically. History has become even
more historical than ever before. And the entire world is heading the same way.
There is no 'end of history', because history is a technological concept not a political
Allow me now to speculate for a moment, as if we had all the means and possibilities
of changing the world in one go. We then could provide in more anchoring and
more stability in all the informational fluidity or liquidity of today. What we need is
more anchoring in this liquidity. It is fine and great to have all this fluidity and, for
example, all the fake news. It is fine that there is freedom of speech. However, we
have opened a kind of Pandora's Box, in the sense that now there are two billion
voices on Facebook that can say whatever they want. That is freedom of speech, and
that is a good thing. But they can also pollute, and then we end up not knowing
anything. If any of them drops one piece of plastic in the sea you can imagine what
happens. If each of them drops one piece of fake news in the infosphere, we no
longer know what to believe, the noise obliterates the signal.
Where do we establish a little bit of cleaning and re-anchoring? I do not believe in
not allowing people to talk, but I do believe in contributing to the conversation with
plenty of good information. So, you start cleaning by sort of out-spacing the negative
elements. It might be science fictional and speculative, but imagine the following.
The archival community should be openly and seriously vocal about all the silly
things people are saying and communicate: we have the documents, here is the
authentic version and, this is how it is or went. However, that is not in the
understanding of, for instance, the library and information science community.
They do not think in those terms. The risk is to think more in terms of being a
warehouse. Using the hyperhistory terminology, in a world that is becoming
increasingly dependent on the digital, the crucial question is: who is providing the
'balancing act', who is keeping the infosphere clean? I do not mean to dump all this
on the archival community and ask it to save the world. There are a lot of professions
there, like teachers, scientists, educators at all levels and others that should do a
better job. They are all called to contribute to the problem management in the space
of information. But at the moment, the archivist profession seems noticeable for its
EDITORS: Apart from this not being active enough, we also might have a more
structural, or more institutional, issue here. In the paper world there was mainly the
government. Now there are a lot of companies and private organisations that,
structurally and institutionally, decide how things are and how things work. When
you see these developments, governmental archives seem to become less relevant.
The question would be: how do we cope with this?
FLORIDI: A problem that I face in another context looks at the same issue but from a
quite different angle. It concerns the proprietary nature of databases. Let me give
examples of two companies, Amazon and Apple. Neither of them would be
immediately identified with education or health. But in terms of, for example,
reading abilities, Amazon probably knows more about how the world reads than
anyone else. Because Amazon has huge amounts of data about all the e-books. It
knows where people stop reading, where people have to read the page twice and
which words they actually click because they do not know the meaning of the word.
This is a treasure that should be used, but it is proprietary. I do not know whether
Amazon is considering exploiting these data. Apple, with the iWatch and the
iPhone, is probably the biggest collector of health-related data in the world as we
speak, and it keeps growing. It says it is not in the data mining business. Yet Apple
owns these data and I am not sure it is going to share them with, for example, the
World Health Organization.
This brings us to the point that, I think, addresses your question: are we to ask digital
companies, and who should ask? Or are we to push them, and say for instance: you
are having access to the free databases of the government, therefore we should have
free access to the databases of your results? Where is the mutual exchange of value
here? Now consider that many companies, like Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft or
Google, do collaborate with universities for research purposes. In this, they may give
access to some of their data. But even Twitter, which is quite famous for sharing its
databases (and therefore their archive), does it in limited ways. This means that you
are not always certain that the data you get are fully representative. It can get unclear
and confusing as to how much you can do with the data reliably. Or speculate for a
moment about an imaginary day when Facebook decides to close down. What would
it do with its data? If it were to donate its data to a government, would you trust that
government with those data more than you trust Facebook? I'm really not so sure.
We have a current project on data donation, supported by Microsoft. We are
exploring the possibility, at the European level, to devise a simple code of practice to
facilitate the donation of medical records by individuals after their death, a bit like
organ donation. Personally, I would like to donate my medical data for research to
the National Health Service. I will be dead by then, so privacy is not an issue for me.
This example goes in the direction of your question, in terms of mutual interactions
concerning who owns which data, and for what purpose the data are used. Private
companies or organisations donating their archives for public use is, of course, not
an entirely new phenomenon. What is new, is the staggering dimension. When you
take the example I gave of Facebook, that is two billion people connected, and an
enormous amount of records. It is staggering. It would be great to see all
stakeholders taking steps towards a mutual interaction between what is public,
governmental, propriety, and invite companies to contribute to the welfare of the
world by sharing more of their data.
archives in liquid times