Posterity Engines

July 2012

One of the more interesting reconceptualizations I’ve come across lately is that of a “posterity engine” which is in Alastair Reynolds’ latest novel, Blue Remembered Earth. I have the Kindle edition which allows me some quick and easy textual analysis; the term appears four times thus:

  1. “Across a life’s worth of captured responses, data gathered by posterity engines, there would be ample instances of conversational situations similar to this one…”
  2. “…[it was out there somewhere in her] documented life – either in the public record or captured in some private recording snared by the family’s posterity engines.”
  3. ”It doesn’t know anything that isn’t in our archives, anything that wasn’t caught by the posterity engines…”
  4. “He was old enough not to have a past fixed in place by the Mech, or posterity engines…”

The context of these sentences imply something not much more complicated than a contemporary search engine. The novel is set in 2162, that is 150 years from the present & publication date (2012).

The phrasing, “captured”, “snared”, “caught” speaks of today’s search engine crawl – crawling across a site, building up a database of links, content and keywords. At some point in our future, our terrabytes will be warehoused and crawled by personal search engines that will be indexed for our future uses – that is for posterity.

This is already happening. We just don’t label these processes with ‘posterity’. Our Apple computers are already running Spotlight crawls that index our local storage, and Time Machine is snapshotting our hardrives. Windows has an equivalent Start Menu search bar.

Imagine than the contemporary as laughably quaint, and imagine five future generations worth of personal petabytes stored somewhere (a central core server per home?) that requires contemporary Google-grade search to make useful.

I’m reminded of the fact that when Google began in 1998, its storage capacity was 350 GB. An off-the shelf MacBook Pro could have run Google in the late 1990s.

I tweeted this last week, but I should note it here:

Everyone talks about Google as a "search engine" but no one talks about Wikipedia as a "find engine".

— Timothy C (@timothycomeau) July 25, 2012

Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, and Google are Search Engines.

Wikipeadia is a Find Engine

Today, all the talk is about “Search” and databases are being built up on ‘search behavior’. Google has a zeitgeist listing that tells us what people have been looking for, and one result of this database is its prediction algorithm, which guesses what you might be searching for, or tells you what other keywords match a search phrase.

If the conversation shifted to ‘finding’, what then? We have Yahoo! Answers and Wikipedia, and all the other websites in the world. Google’s dominance began with the quality of their ‘finds’ – the websites they suggested best matched your search.

If we shifted to analyzing ‘find behavior’, we would begin to build up a database of what sites we’re being accessed most often … and yes, this is already happening, and essentially drives Google’s algorithms. The site at the top is most likely to be the one you’ll want because others have chosen it as well.

Essentially, I find the use of the word ‘engine’ to name these processes of indexing databases curious, and found it especially interesting when coupled with the word ‘posterity’. It began to make me think about the data we are creating, and how it might be archived, accessed, and named. We are currently living under a ‘search’ paradigm but the future will inevitably complicate this, until ‘search’ will no longer be an adequate word.

Document History
  1. Published in two part on my blog, 25 & 31 July 2012
  2. Sept 2015: this version produced