Studying the Dawn of the Social Age
Listening to Melvyn Bragg’s recent BBC podcast Dawn of the Iron Age got me thinking about what future historians and digital archeologists might conclude about us from examining what’s left of our fledgling online social experiences.
In Bragg’s program he discusses the transition from the “Bronze” to the “Iron” ages with a group of articulate and well informed academic archeologists. They speculate about society, commerce, and finances based on burial ground findings, leftover jewelry, tools and weapons, and remnants of smelting furnaces, kitchens, and battlegrounds.
That’s not a lot to go on, given how complex human societies are, but they do the best they can to build a picture of ancient societies despite a lack of written records. As usual, Bragg keeps things moving along at a brisk pace.
Flash forward to the year 3000 AD and some future doctoral student studying the “online social cultures” emerging today via growing use of tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. What will that a student conclude given the digital remnants of friending, discussion groups, and blogging?
Will the future student get an accurate picture of how people started moving their relationships and collaboration practices online? Will the student speculate about the social and commercial significance of the “like” button? Will the student wonder whether frequenly mentioned names like Scoble and Kawasaki represent profound influence on group behavior?
This all assumes the data will still be around to study. For all we know, some massive computer virus will emerge that eats away our digital world, thereby reducing us, once again, to reliance on things iron and bronze.
I’m hoping not. I’m hoping that it will still be possible to take meaningful slices of digital strata to model and intelligently analyze relationships, influence, and identity.
But I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if the future researcher is left to puzzle about what we were REALLY like, given all the confusing crosscurrents we are leaving behind. If that happens, the future student might just conclude, “Hey, they were just like us!”
Copyright (c) 2011 by Dennis D. McDonald