Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Phillip Dick’s 1974 novel with this title is one of best treatments of the blurring line between man and machine. You may know it from the film based on the novel, Blade Runner. When machines are indistinguishable from humans, Dick asks, what does it mean to be a machine or a human. I have always been fascinated by the question of perception versus reality – Rashomon, Escher, where are my keys?
In the world of digital documents, you might ask do we really need brick and mortar museums? Not quite the same as man and machine, but it is a question of digital versus “the real thing” and a topic that must be discussed among archivists today.
Someone once said to me that in twenty years the National Archives will be just one big museum. Research will be done online and documents stored in the suburbs where warehouse costs are lower. Perhaps it is the other way around.
Technology has long been able to create images that were indistinguishable from the original. We have on display in the Public Vaults a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that is disturbingly difficult to distinguish from the real document. Our specialists routinely make copies of important documents that take an expert to discern from the original.
Today, technology has the ability to make documents better than real. We already use some of these techniques in the Public Vault. Visitors can touch a screen and magically the German text is translated into English. Scholars at the University of Illinois are developing a search engine that will that will read cursive. No longer will we need to lament that they no longer teach cursive in schools or that young children stand before the Constitution saying, “I wish I could read that.” Instead the words will appear before them.
One of my favorite documents is the Bill of Rights as marked up by the Senate. The House sent seventeen articles to the Senate, and the Senators literally marked up the bill, crossing things out and writing in the margin. The handwriting is thought to be by John Adams, and it is very hard to read. Imagine in a digital world when you touched the marginalia you heard John Adams voice speaking the words, and in the background another Senator explained why they changed the language of the House.
In her recent book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explores how the new world of constant communication has changed the way we interact. Young people would rather text than talk. Talking on the phone exposes a vulnerability that is uncomfortable, they explain. I often get frustrated by the back and forth of repeated emails and pick up the phone.
Sherry Turkle reports that several young people she interviewed saw no advantage to having a real pet over a mechanical one. The mechanical pet, in fact, gave them more pleasure. The Disney folks report that they often get complaints about the live alligators because they don’t act real enough.
Perhaps the future of archives is that we shut the doors of the museum that cannot compete with the digital world. The building is left for those interested in pawing through the boxes of documents much like it was in 1935, documents that no one will pay to scan.