With Technology, the Past is No Longer a Foreign Country

Novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Ironically, we may no longer live in his world:

This omnipresence of the past has weird effects on contemporary culture. Take any genre of music, from death metal to R&B to chillwave, and the cloud directs you not just to similar artists in the present but to deep wells of influence from the past. Yes, people still like new things. But the past gets as much preference as the present—Mozart, for example, has more than 100,000 followers on Spotify. In a history glut, the idea of fashionability in music erodes, because new songs sit on the same shelf as songs recorded five, 25, and 55 years ago, all of them waiting to be discovered. In this eternal present, everything can be made contemporary.

Perhaps the biggest result of the history glut is that managing all that history becomes the crucial act, both commercially and intellectually. Wikipedia is cataloging history, but to do so it needs to keep up an epic accounting of its own history—the billion-plus edits, each a record of human activity, that have built the encyclopedia over the years. Companies like Spotify and Netflix are mining the past as they host it, looking at their own enormous usage logs and analyzing that data to draw connections between types of people and types of music.

There’s an irony here: All of the data we’re collecting, all of the data points and metadata, is history itself. Much as we marvel at Babylonian clay tablets listing measures of grain, future generations will find just as much meaning in our log files as they will in the media we consume. Sure, Frank Sinatra sang a bunch of songs; sure, Jennifer Lawrence was a big star in 2014. But the log files tell you who listened, and when, and where they were on the planet. It’s these massive digital archives—and the records that show how we used them—that will be the defining historical objects of our era.

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