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The complications of a digital age time capsule

SAITSA President Gar Gar Holds a copy of The Weal from 1966. The newspaper was in the time capsule opened during SAIT's 100 anniversary. (Photo by Justin Schellenberg/The Press)

SAITSA President Gar Gar Holds a copy of The Weal from 1966. The newspaper was in the time capsule opened during SAIT’s 100 anniversary. (Photo by Justin Schellenberg/The Press)

In Złocieniec, Poland, on Sept. 6, a Nazi time capsule was unearthed and opened in a military training complex.

Buried in 1934, it contained pictures of Hitler and two copies of Mein Kampf. And, when the capsule was unsealed, its contents were released to a world that had grown ideologically incapable of connecting with them.

I’m sure we can agree that it’s for the best that we have become incompatible with Nazi paraphernalia, but consider what this means for us.

SAIT revealed the contents of two time capsules and buried another on Oct. 16.

But, in our digital age, what could we possibly bury? So much of who we are is now stored in the cloud instead of the physical world around us.

One option, said Sam Sabey, a bachelor of business administration student at SAIT, is that we could just bury a hard-drive.

“But, with how fast we outgrow things like floppy disks, it’s safest to assume that we won’t have the software to read any of the files on it 100 years from now,” Sabey said.

The endless stream of software updates and new file formats is constantly making old technology obsolete, and now one has to wonder if it’s safe to put digital information in our time capsule.

It can be hard enough trying to access a file a decade after it was made, let alone a century.

The invention of the computer is often compared to the invention of paper, and not just because they revolutionized the way we store information.

There was an archaeological dark age immediately following the invention of paper. People had paper, but it wasn’t for many years that people learned to properly preserve it.

And, unfortunately, all of that history is lost to time.

But, past cultures have always been identified by their technology, and we’ll be no different. We divide our ancestors into the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the pre-pottery Neolithic Age and any number of other periods.

“It makes no difference archaeologically that we could eventually be defined as the Silicon Chip Age or the Wi-Fi Age,” said Meaghan Mackie, a bioarchaeologist who works at the University of Copenhagen.

Mackie has spent three field seasons digging at prehistoric Native archaeological sites across Alberta, as well as a year of digging in the United Kingdom.

Archaeology typically sifts through the things that people leave behind by accident, while time capsules are meant to be very intentional representations of ourselves.

“If I had to choose, my phone would probably be the easiest way to convey a large amount of information about me to future generations, assuming they could access it.”

There is always going to be the risk that the people of the future won’t understand our technology. But, we still have books, and books about the Internet, said Mackie.

We still have our band t-shirts and our baseball caps. We still have each other.

“As much as our life seems to revolve around the Internet and our digital landscape, they are just aspects of our lives, and not the whole picture.”

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