This meme has popped up a lot over the past decade: We’re increasingly putting everything on digital media, which is great, but we’re failing to archive it properly, and even when we do, we’re not archiving the machines we need to read the data. A librarian at the British Library makes this observation again in an article entitled The Great Digital Information Disappearing Act. (Thanks Gary for the link).
But we’re missing a larger point. It’s not just the data – the emails, MP3s, the websites. It’s also the data about the data – the traces of our digital culture that are kept in the database of intentions. That data – what people wanted, when they wanted it, how they asked for it, what they got, where they went – represents no less than the cultural artifacts of our day, equivalent to the pottery shards and stone tools left by our forbearers. Imagine yourself an archaeologist 2,000 years from now. Wouldn’t you like access to MSN or Google’s database of intentions, so as to plumb the traces of an ancient culture emerging into the digital era? But to date, most search companies are either not archiving that data, or if they are, they are keeping it to themselves for competitive or legal reasons. There are huge privacy issues, of course, in insuring this data becomes part of our digital history, but they are solvable. What we don’t have is the cultural will or foresight to realize what we’re creating.
In any case, this is one of the larger informing concepts I am working on for the book. Your comments and input greatly appreciated.