When it comes to the topic of preservation of cultural and human heritage, the first things that come to our mind are physical artifacts namely buildings, paintings, sculptures, clothes, tools, etc. Undoubtedly, many efforts are being made both at the national and international levels to protect and preserve the traces of our valuable heritage. However, the touch of Homo sapiens is not confined to physical artifacts. It is time to focus our attention to protect and preserve other traces of human heritage beyond confining ourselves to two of our major senses: touch and sight. Some people are increasingly interested to know the food habits of our ancestors and even their music. During the past several decades, human beings have moved several aspects of their lives to computers. Ever-evolving information technology solutions have become an integral part of human lives. Hence, there is a growing concern about losing these valuable human endeavors to our future generations.
Save Human Heritage
We are living in the age of increasing automation. We are slowly moving away from physical tangible objects to virtual intangible objects. This means, that all those objects, which had material existence in the past can no longer be touched, the way we record information, and the way we build objects have taken a completely new form. Our ancestors may not be able to comprehend how we keep track and manage personal information and objects.
Protecting our human heritage is important. However, most of the time when we talk about heritage, we think about material objects, that can be touched, smelt, and felt. We need to take the new virtual world seriously. Defining this virtual world required humans to learn a whole set of new languages and technologies. Preserving them for our future generations is important since every (virtual) brick that we use to build this virtual world leaves behind a ton of stories. One may recall how the writing system played an important role in transmitting oral knowledge from generation to generation. However, we must also remember that many aspects of oral knowledge transmission: the form of storytelling, the emotions, the intonations, etc. used by the speakers are lost to the future generation.
The writing systems required languages. Each language had its own set of grammar rules that evolved. Some of these languages developed into dialects and even newer languages. However, we are still baffled by the question of what the first language looked like. What were the first symbols, phonemes, and lexemes of the first language? Which languages evolved from the first language? Archaeologists and linguists around the world are still digging and researching to find the answers using texts on buildings, pamphlets, and human artifacts. This research into languages, however, depends on tangible and material objects, which could potentially be deciphered one day.
Things are not the same in the virtual world. Somebody who finds a floppy disc today may not have this advantage of the physical objects. They may wonder about the object, some may not have seen it before and wonder what is in it. They may not even have available floppy disc readers to understand the content. Even, if they managed to find one, they may not have the right software that needs to detect correctly the underlying file system, but also understand the content written in a possibly obscure file format. Even, if they manage to find the software that can read the disc contents, they may not be able to execute it because the executable was not prepared for the hardware and the operating system. Finally, even if they manage to find the source code of the software, they may need to understand the programming language used for building the software and find relevant compilers or interpreters to create an executable that could run on their machine.
The languages that we use to communicate with each other and even the languages that we use to communicate with other objects, like computers or other machines are evolving very rapidly. We are losing track of this speedy evolution. It is important to document and preserve this human heritage. Without proper preservation efforts, we may soon lose answers to the questions of how we reached this point in the history of time concerning a given language or a technology.
Even when we confined heritage to physical artifacts, we have numerous examples of forgotten paths, as illustrated above with the examples of human languages. However, now when all those physical objects are beginning to have their equivalent virtual twins, the problem becomes very challenging.
Audition, Olfaction and Gustation
A constant fear that as humans are moving from the physical to the virtual world, we may lose and even undermine our other sensory organs related to hearing, smell, touch, and taste. We have lost forever the information on how our ancestors sounded like, what their food tasted like, etc. However, with our technological advancements, we must not consciously lose what we human beings are capable of achieving.
With our meetings turning virtual, we cannot lose the importance that we humans give to the physical spaces, the décor, the choice of colors for objects, the placement of tables and chairs in a room, the choice of flowers, and plants, the seasonal use of different fruits, etc. All these decisions and choices helped us easily identify the time, place, and space of our meetings that we completely lose to the virtual world.
Virtual artifacts: Information Technology
With the rapidly evolving digital world, it is time that we start seriously thinking about virtual artifacts. The rapid advancement of the solutions developed by different players (companies, groups, and individuals) has resulted in a situation where some of the older solutions do not work anymore on newer machines. Thus any proposed solutions (e.g., Digital Vellum1 in the past, EaaSI2, Open Preservation3, etc.) must be able to document and preserve4 every aspect of a software solution: the programming languages (human-constructed languages), software built using these languages, hardware that run those languages, interpreters as well as compilers that comprehend and convert one language to another language. Every aspect that we use to build this world needs to be documented and preserved so that the future generations (or even any of us in the future) can easily sense them and comprehend the path to any technological progress. Our preservation efforts must capture and preserve different sensory interactions with the internal and external environment.
The touch of Homo sapiens needs to be properly documented and preserved by us, the Homo sapiens.