Posted tagged ‘digital archives’

Digital retention

July 12, 2011

I must ‘fess up: I am a digital hoarder. I hardly ever delete anything. If you’ve ever sent me an email I probably still have it. As I have mentioned recently I have stored an estimated 250,000 emails that I have received or sent at one point or another. I don’t know how many documents I have stored, but again, there are very many – though here I do from time to time delete in order not to take up silly amounts of disk space. As I mentioned, I do wonder about how durable this archive will be, and whether on some future date it will be unreadable as the software changes, and therefore obsolete.

But now it has been suggested by Oxford Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger that, in fact, we need to be better at digital forgetting. We should assume that much of what we are hoarding has no lasting value of any kind and should be deleted. Or else, we should be worried about data security and the personal intrusiveness of data retention, and we should delete and cause others to do so. The mass of stored information can never be processed properly and hoarders such as me are jeopardising the remembering of what matters.

But what does matter? Is my belief today as to what matters likely to be my belief in 20 years time, if I’m spared? Or will others agree anyway? I can easily see the common sense of the proposition that by storing much less we will be able to attract more attention for what we do retain. But then again, if I could get access to trivial notes written by, say, Charles Dickens I would still suspect that some of these would add worthwhile knowledge about the author.

So I’m not necessarily persuaded. I’m still hoarding. Though to be fair, I have still got no idea whether what I am hoarding will be accessible to anyone of a future generation; I’m just putting my trust in the technological ingenuity of our descendants.

Memories in cyberspace

January 29, 2009

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.