Things Are Just Starting To Get Interesting

by Randy Murray on January 27, 2014

I’ve been on the Internet since 1986. Back then I used it primarily to discuss the minutiae of the original Star Trek series with people inside the Pentagon, universities, and with other Bell Lab employees across the country. In 1995 I left my job in corporate America and started an Internet consultancy. I eventually went back to other corporate gigs, but even those jobs had a core purpose centered on the Internet.

Most recently, for the past four and a half years I’ve worked from home.  I rarely meet my clients in person.

I live on the net.

And yet I feel as if we’re still in the shadows of what life will be like in days to come.

Today we can still discuss our favorite TV shows, build little shrines to them, perhaps even watch them online. We can buy and sell things (typically surrounding those same television shows), and we can exchange short messages with fellow fans.

It seems as if everything there is to know about everything is online.

But it’s not. There’s so much that simply isn’t online. Ask any research librarian. Ask any serious student of any subject. Ask yourself about anything that you know deeply. Is everything online?

From my experience there are a lot of very interesting things online, but it’s a thin and shallow pool we wade and splash about in. Soon, I hope, we’ll find our way to the deep end.

Take a look at this graphic. It’s a visualization of ships’ logs from the 19th century plotting just their ports of call and the paths between them. To me this is a mesmerizing and tantalizing image. And I’m prompted to ask: what else is to be known from those logs? What about every other carefully kept log and journal from the last 500 years or so of  commercial and naval traffic? What was the weather like on Cape Cod on January 27th, 1603? Who made that observation? Who else was there? And what did they have for lunch?

There is so much that is not on the internet! So many diaries. So many official records about so many subjects (including hand written records about TV broadcasts and what advertisements ran on what channel at what time). Tax records. Decrees. Shopping lists. Newspapers. Burial records. Photographs. Play performances.

All of these things, those that still exist, are mostly still offline. They sit in drawers and on shelves. Some haven’t been read in centuries. What secrets they hold! Most are relatively uninteresting by themselves, but combine them all up and suddenly we have access to a rich picture of the past. We might form new understandings of history, of what actually happened, and what path we’re on today and why.

We’re only scratching the surface. You can keep your jetpacks and flying cars. What I’m waiting for is the past to come online.

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