Memories in cyberspace

If last week, on January 20th, you had (let us say, at 4.30 pm Irish time) opened www.whitehouse.gov on your browser, you would have seen the final messages of the George W. Bush administration on the web. An hour later, and you would have seen the welcome to the new world of United States under Barack Obama. If for some reason you were interested in going back to the Bush material – and after all, it’s a free country – you would not have been able to do so. It was gone; not re-filed in some way, but gone for ever. All that remains is a page on George W. Bush himself, in the part of the site that gives information on past Presidents.

The point I am making here is not that you should show nostalgia for the last eight years, but rather that if we see the internet as a valuable archival resource, it is a somewhat insecure one, and some information (even if you consider it important) will be ephemeral. My example may not bother you much right now, but at some point people will want this material as they do historical or political analysis, and it will not be there. At any rate, it will not be on that website, though no doubt someone somewhere will have filed it.

But as an article in the Observer newspaper pointed out last Sunday, there are other issues of a similar kind in today’s world of electronic information and document storage. An increasing number of us have our photographs only on our hard disks, with no hard copies. But something may happen to our computers, or indeed they may become obsolete, or the software that makes our images viewable may change so that in a few years we can no longer open them. Gone are the old paper diaries, in are the blogs and the jottings on social networking sites. If my great grandchildren want to read these, will they be able to? Quite probably not. And if that is so, has our new information age actually made that information very fleeting?

I actually think that these are important matters – and at any rate my own contribution to this will be that I shall spend some time this year printing out at least some documents, emails and photographs that I would hate to see lost to future generations. Maybe that’s just ego on my part, but I feel it’s the right thing to do.

Explore posts in the same categories: society, technology

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6 Comments on “Memories in cyberspace”

  1. Cian Says:

    I assume you’re aware of http://www.archive.org/index.php, which goes some way to remedying the issue you’re talking about. Also, as long as files are kept backed up, and in some open format (odf rather than .doc say) there’s no reason for them ever to become unavailable, and they are in fact probably far better placed to last than paper copies are.

  2. Daithí Says:

    Partial solution: http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/ – but I agree that this is a problem( extremely annoying to researchers), especially the broken links.

  3. cormac Says:

    I too think it is a very important matter. Perhaps bloggers are more conscious of it than most, as we realise that so many of our thoughts and writings may one day languish in irretrievable format!
    But this problem has been around for a while – as you know, most servers simply cannot cope with the demands of email backup, with the result that many people have long since lost important email communications (few academics take the time to back up properly on their own machines) .
    A third example is scientific data: a few years ago, I decided to write up some experiments I had done for my PhD that had never been published in a journal – I soon discovered that there wasn’t a working computer in Ireland that could read the old-fashioned disks! In the end, I had to use photocopies of diagrams from my thesis….
    There is one possible way out: perhaps society could insist that each new step in computing can also deal with the previous technology. As far as I know, there is no reason in principle this cannot be done, it is simply that the will is not there…Regards, Cormac


  4. […] Memories in cyberspace and Looking back to Apple’s future update two of the Three internet tropes […]

  5. ultan Says:

    You appear to be confusing two issues – data storage and rendering of the data.


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