Is a Digital Priestly Class Needed?

Yesterday, I read this fascinating newsletter on Anticipatory Gardening. It got me thinking about the possible need for a digital priestly class.

“Priestly class” used mostly as a slur. But priests exist for some good reasons.

One of those is to turn accumulated information and wisdom via trial and error, revelation, innovation, and contemplation into something easy to pass on and not easy to lose or forget. This is done through ritual, garments, traditions, building, books, processes.

A priestly class can become gatekeepers, hiding knowledge from the world, but at their best, they are preservers, keeping knowledge alive even in trying times.

The digital age did a lot to remove the gatekeepers. But while none of us were noticing, it also removed the preservers.

Things are being scrubbed and forgotten. Previously discovered truths have to re-found or re-invented. Entire troves of data become inaccessible with new hardware. Ways of being and thinking are inconceivable as we are conditioned to believe life has always been like this.

Our confidence in digitization causes us to neglect other forms of preservation. We don’t need that anymore, I’m sure it’s online by now. Google has added all the books in the world to some library somewhere, right? The Wayback Machine ensures everything’s been cataloged, right? Sadly, no.

Making info easy to add and spread can also mean it’s easy to edit and destroy. Many of these archival tools have already been pruned and changed. All are selective in what they preserve.

A digital priestly class is needed to preserve and pass on all of this information before it gets compressed and condensed into algorithmically determined summaries and we forget all the richness behind it. (Google’s utopian vision is, I’m not kidding, a world where every search yields a single, perfect result. Paging Doctor Hayek!) We will become dumber if we turn over humanity’s accumulated wisdom to the bots and algos that manage info online.

Digital preservers need to emerge to protect and maintain the weird history being written on the web, as well as everything moved onto it from before. The digital equivalent of norms and rituals and sacred cathedrals and libraries and monasteries may be required to serve this purpose.

I have no idea what that might look like, or how closely it will map to the trappings of knowledge-preservation in the past. I do know that it must be voluntary and independent from any government. Otherwise, the gatekeeper function will rear its head and dominate the role, and we’ll be right back where we were pre-printing press and pre-digital.

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