Should there be any permanent records?
Should there be any permanent records?
By Joseph Andrew Settanni
Historians of ancient civilizations, especially regarding the Greeks and Romans, tell the public that, e. g., only about 5% (or less) of created Greco-Roman literature has survived to the present time. Many volumes and tomes of what Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Cicero, Plutarch, Virgil, etc. wrote had not, in fact, been saved from various acts and instances of destruction for whatever reasons.
Untold thousands upon thousands of manuscripts have been simply lost permanently, in the tunnels of time, besides the so unfortunately repeated burnings done to, e. g., the ancient Alexandrian Library. Massive chunks of knowledge, as should be known by all educated people, have easily been lost to human history.
Thus, one perceives that there has necessarily come about an extremely skewed or quite obviously distorted view or vision of the once extant classical production of all such Greco-Roman writing. A relatively tiny portion of writing has usually be used by which to judge the assumed value of its intellectual greatness or, at least, literary productivity of which did not in fact, in the majority of instances, survive over the ages to any significant degree. And, that phenomenological and existential fact is, of course, intellectually interesting, indeed.
The superficial presumption, which is not logically true, is that the best survived because it survived, and then this (supposedly) indicates that it is the best because, well, it had survived. What? Only a truly foolish person, if any, actually believes in such an oddly bold tautology.
In any event, civilization, of course, had survived and, moreover, regardless of the asserted loss of 95% of such recorded writing/information that had once existed in the now long-gone ancient world. Knowledge of the Classical World, thus, was not fundamentally lost, for all the known substantial paucity of its very slim original documentary presence notwithstanding.
People of the modern and, now, postmodern world have decided to try to affect what may be called (when forced to admit it) an opposite “vice;” this is by seeking to nearly retain, whenever possible, 100% of what gets created as to human writing (or its equivalent), which is, as to the instance cited, declared to be permanent in its value. Is this truly, nonetheless, really necessary for the both actual and verifiable progress or, perhaps, maintenance of civilization itself?1
After all, in historical point of fact, it took only about 5% to yet secure a basic and now lasting (and once highly and widely treasured in the West) knowledge of one phase of ancient human advancement, as was above noted.
In case it has not yet be easily noticed, this article is, therefore, dedicated to a radical bit of iconoclasm. The provocative cognitive effort, through sustained argumentation, will be critically directed, however, not to arguing against all records retention, but to say that most and, perhaps, almost all records need not be ever kept permanently. As will be radically argued, any other view is, ultimately, very superstitious and quite fetishistic.
This logically includes, moreover, almost all kinds of data/files/records thought or said to be vitally essential as to information content. A many-pronged attack will be given, therefore, firmly against what are typically designated as being permanent records.
The Fetishism of Permanent qua Records
Today, literally, trillions upon trillions of documents and records series were, are, and will be declared to be of permanent value. Is this sensible? Is this realistic? Is this fetishistic? The answers, if one wishes to know, are said here to be: No, no, and definitely yes.
For instance, when a typical government bureaucrat or, perhaps, an elected official declares certain records to be permanent as to their expected legal retention, does that person know, fully and comprehensibly, what is then necessarily meant? The honest answer, on average, is absolutely no. And, many advancements in records technology, no matter how apparently remarkable, can only do so much. But, must all so-called permanent records be kept permanently? The question may, thus, seem to present an apparent conundrum.
For example, archival records are meant to be permanent; however, in pure archives theory, if the entire holdings of the US National Archives was reduced to a single microdot, DVD, or whatever media and if the paper or all other media holding the information were destroyed, then that microdot would then become the archives. It is the information that counts most, not the mere media involved. The media should not become an issue.
Let there be engagement in what Albert Einstein called a thought experiment. What is being required, when put under a rigorous examination and logical analysis, by the designation of “permanent” can be neither realistically guaranteed nor permanently achieved. Think about this: A permanent record/record series is to be (supposedly) kept, on whatever records media, permanently. It is a document which retains its legal, administrative and historical value as to the information contained without any timeframe ever becoming applicable; it is said to be permanent as to its assumed value.
This means that the record (or whatever is equivalent) must be retained, literally, forever and ever more. Note: Not just a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few millenniums of time are to be logically involved. And, this should be taken up as a challenge to the records and information management profession, for there is the desire to shake up the profession. What, in particular, is being asseverated here?
Let the overt matter be made more perfectly clear. Thus, it is being declared, whether consciously realized or not, that a particular designated document or groups of documents, then constituting a said record/record series, will be expected to be in demand for viewing many millions upon millions of years from now and, moreover, into an unknown perpetuity. That is the so often unspoken reality to be properly connected to the existence of a permanent record; and, such a primal consideration or matter is, at a minimum, hardly insignificant.
People, either in the past or the ever fleeting present, have so determined that a document will be expected to be present millions of eons, epochs, from now. It is, for public institutions, the official administrative record which is held by a government or public agency for an indefinite period of time. Is this consideration, however, viable and credible?
Think hard about that fact, a mind-staggering fact, of what a permanent record is to be as to its fullest existence, meaning it is to be held for future posterity and, moreover, to the nth time of posterity. Literally mind-boggling kinds of research requests are to be easily imagined. How so? Somebody (or, perhaps, an advanced robot) or any presumably still sensate being available, e. g., in the year 1,000,000,000 AD will want (desperately?) to see a copy of John Doe of Oshkosh, WI’s birth certificate. Really? Can this be confidently asserted as being undeniably true?
Or, hordes of people or at least sensate beings, in, say, the year 3535, will so urgently demand to see such things as the permanent city council minutes of [using fictitious names] Pukesvilleton, VT or Bittersicky, OH; one must believe, in addition, that typical requests will come, in the year 6565, for anxiously seeing the 1890 Annual State Budgets of Kentucky, Vermont, or New Hampshire; in the much later year of, perhaps, 9595, it will be seen as just completely indispensable to carefully look at the full list of all registered 1902 mortgages for Montana or, say, Wisconsin, of course.
Really? Is all this easily set within the average realm of rationally cogent expectations? Many kinds of perplexing imponderables, perhaps fathomless in nature, do become highly problematic, to say the least. Realistically speaking, in a world where entire mountains, over the ages, can crumble into dust, how actually permanent, in fact, is permanent? One may be, thus, reasonably skeptical.2
Under much present law and typical practices, nothing less, however, is being normally expected, of course. If a sensate and presumably intelligent reader, however, has not begun to choke at this thought, then it is a sign of a case of plausible proof of brain death. It is so highly unrealistic and plainly absurd to think that the vast majority of records typically now deemed permanent will, in fact, be assuredly kept and properly conserved, as to their information, for many untold eons or ages of time. And, will be then fully accessible (readable), of course.
Intelligent people ought, logically, to question quite seriously the true suitability of a permanent designation for types or categories of records. Time limits of some apposite kind ought to be rationally imposed upon any genuine effort to properly retain such documentation thought to be vitally useful for future generations, meaning, in particular, the majority of such records (e. g., 90% of them). Are the vast majority, the predominant bulk, of such records truly worthy of being held for what is assumed to be eternity, since nothing less is actually being implied by having been chosen for the special category of permanent records qua information and as perpetually maintained, somehow or other?
Noetic phenomenology comes into play here as to multiplicitous unknowns involved, both existentially and experientially understood, concerning seen considerations of knowledge tectonics, logistics, engineering, and management. What most people today may genuinely consider to be absolutely vital or tremendously essential information, critical for sustaining civilized life at all costs, may not be so thought needed by, e. g., the year 100,000 AD.
As is known, such things as science, technology, culture, language, knowledge content, etc. do change over vast (and sometimes shorter) periods of time, for the categorization of certain records for a literal perpetuity is, in fact, a plain canard. Over a “mere” period of time of just, say, 1500 years, a speaker of Old English would have a really difficult time talking with a modern English speaker.
What might English, if it still exists, be like in about 10,000 or, perhaps, 50,000 years? It might be then as fundamentally indecipherable as, in fact, was Egyptian hieroglyphics before the coming of Jean-François Champollion and the trilingual Rosetta Stone. At the very least, therefore, some great profundity of careful and coherent thought is or should be involved here. How so?
Otherwise, critically speaking, it is sheer nonsense and blatant haughtiness to so assume that mere imperfect mortals can definitively know, with an absolute and fixed certainty, what some (presumably) intelligent beings will want to have documentary access to some thousands, hundreds of thousands, or, perhaps, millions of years from now. Nothing less is implied by the retaining of supposedly perpetual records. Get real!
Only some currently unknown and presently incredible technological advance, well past any contemporary ranges of knowledge, could so conceivably overcome the perceived barriers toward successfully achieving truly perpetual ways and means of recording information, toward the explicitly demanded timescale of (what is to exist as) a realizable pragmatic infinity. Can such an effort at selected records retention be that truly reasonable, that fairly sensible?
This surely is, at a minimum, neither rationally tenable nor practically possible, as to a true cognizant achievement, thus, seeking a direct empirical realization in fact. Exorbitant and untenable expectations, in this regard, are much like betting all one’s chips on the supposed equivalent of finding massive quantities of the Dead Sea Scrolls, literally untold epochs from now. Doesn’t an alternative exist, one which can much more fairly meet the vast existential, experiential, empirical, conditional, and phenomenological logistics and realities involved?
A reasonable suggestion here is given, which is considered to be much more suitable and fairly practical, is to then chronically divide “permanent” records into at least three basic and broad categories.
The lowest type of priority can be temporarily long-term records of, say, 100 to 1,000 years maximum (at least 70% of them); the next could be 1,001 to 10,000 years maximum (20% of them); and anything set above 10,000 years to be specially guarded, highly protected, and exceptionally media-conversion managed in an attempt for seeking a hopeful perpetuity (10%) of the information involved. And yet, admittedly, this last effort would be the most difficult of attainment, if ever substantially attempted. Such clear specifications would, thus, help to significantly give, nonetheless, both a more concrete meaning and manifest definition to the designation of permanent.
There can be thinking pertaining to documents that is structured, in a divided manner, on the suggested: 1.) short-term range of retention, 2.) the intermediate range, and 3.) the long-term preservation focused effort directed unto forever, as various resources might permit, of course. Limited human and other such practical resources can then be primarily focused upon the presumably and absolutely vital 10% of records deemed truly worthy of such a literally monumental exertion on such truly hyper-supportive retention versus the other two relatively lesser records categories.3
Right now, the practice or intention of keeping untold trillions upon trillions of records, without the above rational categorization and discrimination scheme, as if they all are just totally and intrinsically worthy to exist seemingly everlastingly, meaning held in some media format(s) eternally, is axiomatically absurd, in a quite fundamental sense, to the nth degree.
And yet, this is, in fact, exactly the current, empirical, legal, and actual reality that exists in the known world of permanent recordkeeping. Thus, a cognizant appeal to correct sanity and rationality, mental coherence and logical perspicuity, must be properly called here into formal existence, in the face of this obviously ridiculous and simply untenable situation.4
Factually speaking, it can be easily guessed that the vast majority of what has been/will be denominated as permanent will not, in fact, be retained permanently. Nor, moreover, can anyone really successfully guarantee such an outcome. The suggestion of this article is that a clear reality check is rightly requisite and reasonably demanded by the limits ranged against the expected outcome of retaining certain records in an assumed kind of retention perpetuity.
More care and concern, attention and consideration, is needed that allows for a greater degree of sustained cognitive reflection; this is, surely, before seeking to imagine that certain records deserve a kind of absolute retention, whether admitted or not, seeking an assumed form of eternity. How substantively plausible and sensible, therefore, can this really be? Can such an effort at informational “perpetualism” be achieved? Or, is it, in the end, utopian?
Thoughtful reflection can be made upon those many societies and entire civilizations that may have thought of themselves, their buildings, their documents as having some sort of an eternal reality, as with, e. g., Rome being called the Eternal City. Permanence has not been, in fact, the truly central feature of human constructs, inclusive of whole cultures, societies, and civilizations, so how can mere records as artifacts be thought to be of acquiring a permanent nature?
In hard terms of historical realism, meaning after about 1,000 or 10,000 years or so, about 90% of such artifacts are lucky not to have just become some kind or other of merely accumulated debris long, long ago. After all, even the truly largest pyramids of Egypt, if given enough time, would be very fortunate not to have simply turned into dust.5
Any optimism, therefore, clearly works against the hard Law of Entropy; a pessimistic viewpoint about such things is, therefore, realistically much more justified than not. A vast list of imponderables must, logically, impinge critically upon vagrant or other calculations of the possibility of substantial hordes of deemed essential records being so successfully retained, professionally maintained, and appropriately conserved for, quite literally, many unknown spans of time. How reasonably tenable, rationally plausible, is all that?
Perhaps, as favored by this article, a compromise point of view may assist at the wanted effort to perceive ways to keep some records for the longest period, meaning being of both practical and possible of attainment. The idea that certain types of information are meant to last forever is, in its essence, presumptuous nonsense to the nth degree because all materials things disintegrate or decay over long enough periods of time.
If surely gigantic mountains cannot really last into perpetuity, how then can any mere pieces of paper, microfilms, digital tapes, or digital discs? Realism must, logically, come to intelligently refute the aforementioned fetishism surrounding the notion of permanent records. Why, however, can this be logically said?
This is because the pivotal factor of time ought to help illustrate the (unintended?) fraud involved. There is the amazing supposition, based entirely upon hope that what got designated in 2017 as a permanent record will be needed in the year 100,000 AD, which is still simply quite a presumption. No actual knowledge, therefore, can ever viably exist by which to definitively know that this hope, as a planted axiom, will be prove to be a, thus, genuine fact in that now far distant time period, set so well beyond any human’s entire lifetime.
The ever fleeting present becomes rapidly the past, while people so act assuming that there is a future for a past to build upon, through what had been once the then present actions; nonetheless, retaining certain files/data/records in an assumed perpetuity is only based, as was noted, upon hope, which is fraudulent. Why?
There are no truly absolute guarantees that could be confidently rendered, by which one can just so assuredly know, that a fairly sensate (and presumably intelligent) being will thoughtfully regard some documents from 2017 as being vital for civilized life or, perhaps, at least some really needful knowledge, in the year 100,000 AD. It can only be hoped, not at all known for an absolute certainty.6
The solid recommendation made in this article to reasonably subdivide the “permanent” category into more manageable empirical chunks of reality should assist greatly with present and future recordkeeping practices. Furthermore, technology, in addition, has its limits when it approaches the rather coldly deranged embrace of the present insanity of permanent records retention practices; these are, in effect, seen hurtling into now untold periods of projected time reaching toward eternity itself.
The current alternative is asinine and, moreover, evidently impossible concerning its inherent inability to be physically sustainable, financially practical, humanly conceivable, and rationally deliverable, meaning as to the appropriate retaining of so-called permanent records for presumed, extremely lengthy, archival-historical storage.
Any attempt to simply keep an X number of records in perpetuity is not a rational proposition in and of itself, though an effort to try to possibly retain some selected information in an ongoing manner, through various media transitions over projected time periods, could be tried (with difficulty no doubt), as was above stated. A records preservation effort, for the selected 10%, can be attempted, though knowing it will always be problematic at best.
- This may raise the interesting issue of why mere mortal creatures seek to somehow or other immortalize their artifacts (in this case records) by thinking that they can designate things to be retained permanently on the face of this planet. Is it for the supposed attempted “apotheosis” of civil society, as to a manifestation of it seen in printed or written documents, as is so put on various media?
Basically ephemeral, existentially transient, beings have haughtily taken it upon themselves to, thus, glorify their scripted intelligence qua records media relics for many, many assumed eons to come. This ludicrous effort is laughable, besides being inherently pathetic. It is an effort at a senseless kind of inverse proportion simply gone insane: non-mortal creatures seek to create an ersatz immortality for their mere documentary remains seeking a future enshrined antiquity.
And, moreover, few there are who do dare to ever seriously question this tremendous insanity and, by definition, disproportionate hubris of finite animated creatures. Records have been, over many centuries, subject to fires, floods, and a various assortment of other natural and manmade disasters. How can anyone rationally guarantee, therefore, that certain “permanent” records/records series will, in fact, be available many millenniums from now?
- When dealing with ever presumably great magnitudes of time, how could anyone truly, meaning rationally, calculate fully the literally heterogeneous conglomeration of incalculable estimations needed by which one could formulate a desired research outcome to occur epochs from the present time? If that person’s head does not figuratively start to spin, then such a being is, of course, either a liar or just a plain fool (though, perhaps, both).
- Yes, it is freely conceded that the chosen chronological date sets are arbitrary and that the percentages would seem as equally capricious in their own choices. But, however, is not simply assuming the designation of permanent to be realistic, when applied to trillions of documents or records series, just as fundamentally arbitrary or capricious?
The proposal, set in this text, is the basic effort to apply some proper degree of fair rationality versus the blatant insanity of seeking the immortalizing of these human artifacts, all for untold periods of time, aiming toward an unknown infinity. Get real! Advocacy of this article’s point of view is, therefore, being here suggested as something that serious records and information managers should at least consider; otherwise, a major lack of professional seriousness and dedication can be rightly suspected.
- The State of Texas, as just one political example, includes 254 counties at present. It could be said that, since well over 200 counties are actually in existence as of the year 2017, there must be a certain amount of historical redundancy to the intended keeping of all the officially designated permanent records, meaning in at least some or, perhaps, many of those counties.
The thoroughgoing studious keeping of absolutely all such records/documents, supposedly forever, suggests an extreme degree of officiousness set well beyond reason. How might this be dealt with to some extent? Objective criteria for records samplings, as set by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, could be established by which historical redundancy can be reasonably avoided, though allowing for certain notable exceptions to the sampling rule, e. g., when rationally thought needed, of course.
This would help to allow local governments to better concentrate their limited resources to trying to intelligently save critically selected records series or documents in a substantially improved manner by refocusing efforts ate preservation of the information itself, regarding of the media involved. Additionally, the taxpayers would benefit, of course. Overall, this would be a rather pleasant inducement toward the respect for sanity that is often lacking, when it feels like everything, including the kitchen sink, gets declared to be a permanent record.
- Only some presently unknown or, perhaps, inconceivable futuristic scenario could provide the currently nonexistent solution to this monumental problem; the author of this article claims no clairvoyance as to possible future developments that can absolutely guarantee, in this order, the obvious, integral, and inherent permanent records media demands of 1.) Indestructability, 2.) Universalized accessibility and 3.) Permissible transmitability if/when needed.
Nothing less, therefore, has to be logically and rationally expected from information sources qua records to actually, factually, be then somehow or other retained in an assumed future perpetuity toward, admittedly, an unknown future time. It is, indeed, quite a tall order for consideration. Currently, at the least, much of what is being permanently saved will turn out to be, literally, just many mountains of junk.
6. And, if about 5% of pre-22nd century information survives to the year 100,000, will it be then pronounced as having been the best of what had survived, as with the ancient Classical Literature example? One wonders.
[This brief compilation below is only meant to illustrate that the matter of permanent records is, in fact, treated with all seriousness.]
publicrecordsboard.wi.gov/docview.asp?docid=19194&locid=165 GUIDELINES FOR THE PERMANENT RETENTION OF RECORDS BY WISCONSIN STATE AGENCIES-Adopted By the Public Records Board-November 2001