“Institutional Memory and Reverse Smuggling” is the memoir of an anonymous petroleum engineer who was came out of retirement to help his old company relearn how one of its chemical plants worked. The company had forgotten how the plant worked because, in his words
It was designed by a group that no longer exists, in a company that has since merged, in an office that has been closed, using non-digital methods that are no longer employed.
As bad as this problem is in other areas of engineering, it’s especially acute online, where linkrot and the death of free services mean that content disappears from the internet on a mass scale every day. Ironically, this essay itself was almost a victim to that. It was originally posted to http://wrttn.in which is a (now defunct) site that allowed people to post notes and short essays. If I hadn’t copied this essay and e-mailed to myself (like its subject did with his private blueprints) it would have been lost too.
EDIT: Thanks to Obormot for giving me a proper place to host this essay for public consumption.
EDIT 2: I think this is a high value problem for rationalists to solve, given that many problems would be much easier to reason about if you knew about all the prior approaches to the problem that had been tried and discarded. If information disappears or becomes inaccessible, that becomes impossible, and you no longer find yourself able to stand on the shoulders of giants. However, I don’t see very many other people talking about the problem of information preservation, and those that are don’t really seem to be doing a good job of it.