Today the front page of the Endangered Languages Project’s web site features Koro, a Sino-Tibetan dialect that is spoken by fewer than four thousand in an obscure corner of mountainous northeast India. Endangered Languages seeks to preserve languages like Koro, chiefly by recording as much of them as possible digitally, and in so doing preserve “enormous cultural heritage; the understanding of how humans relate to the world around us; scientific, medical and botanical knowledge… the expression of communities’ humor, love and life”.
In other words, the creators (who began under the umbrella of the data kings at Google) saw vast repositories of information slipping away and thought it would be a good idea to turn it into digital, preservable data before it was gone. Ultimately though, the biggest challenge that the project will face won’t be in keeping that information present and accessible, but in keeping it relevant and remembered amid the vast torrent of data that their arguably quiotix efforts are – ironically – contributing to.
Although humans have been making data for at least five thousand years, as of 2012 IBM claims that ninety percent of the sum total of global data has been created in the last two years alone. MIT Sloan’s Management Review claims that most organizations expand the amount of data they create by between 35-50% every year. We’ve gotten so good at creating cheap data storage that free email services alot space to their users by the gigabyte, and we’re still making data much, much faster than we can create places to put it. In the decades after the advocates for Koro are gone, who will ever think to look for it in the digital haystack? Who will care to invest their time in its intricacies and subtleties? Who will notice that it’s even still around?
I think the answer is that no one will, but the impulse to preserve it in spite of that struck me as beautiful and admirable – enough so that I was inspired to do my part as the next link in the chain: a recipient of preserved things, benefiting, appreciating and reveling in the glory of that which has been saved. I realized right away that I didn’t want to learn Koro and really needed something I could appreciate that wouldn’t require me to spend tedious hours working toward gaining some new special knowledge or, worse yet, leaving the house. For my salvation I looked immediately toward television.
TV is such a vast landscape that I could have gone anywhere, but one special TV show exceeds all others in its preservation of culture: Mystery Science Theater 3000. MST3K’s formula begins with hours of old films that succeed – in spite of or maybe because of how bad they are – at documenting decades-old Americana. But, like the counterpoint that makes a two part Bach invention tick, the films are merely one voice in the total composition – the subject to the counter-subject of creator Joel Hodgson and writer Mike Nelson’s brilliant satirizing of each film’s quirks. It would be easy to overstate the importance of this witty dialog, so let me stop short by just describing it as a cultural Ark of the Covenant, a stunningly brilliant codex containing our world and everything in it: politicians, board games, musicians, snack foods. Everything. And, just like Koro, in a number of years – fewer than I’d like to think – it will all be lost on all of us. Today though, I can try to spare a few moments to notice one of these fragments of human experience, learn what it means, and ponder whether it will mean anything in the future. For a clearer explanation of what I have in mind, see this post.