A leaked slide suggests that Yahoo will shutdown Delicious. Gary Vaynerchuk announces that Cork’d will come to an end. Two years ago, Ma.gnolia experienced catastrophic data loss, taking thousands of bookmarks with it, mine included. Around the same time, Yahoo (sadly, a recurring player on this stage) killed Geocities. Dan Cederholm reminds us that very little on the web lasts forever. Indeed.
On many an occasion, I’ve spoken with someone about their reluctance to get a tattoo and heard something to the effect of “I can’t imagine making a decision that would last forever.” My somewhat cheeky response has always been to say it won’t last forever; it will only last as long as you do, which is to say, not very long at all. But most of the time, and for most people, “forever” is that piece of time that we can see with our own eyes. Forever is the length of a single, human life.
Such a definition could be unfavorably referred to as myopic; defining forever as the span of our own lives disrespects the lives around and after us. (I’m convinced that many of the people who deny climate change suffer from an inability to imagine that the world will go on without them.) But it is hard to argue with a time span built of our own biology. And, perhaps when it comes to our collective cultural memory, a single life is long enough: long enough, that is, for the next generation to pick up the torch.
This, I believe, is why a book feels permanent, even though enough libraries have burned over the centuries that we ought to know better. A well-made book, stored upright, in a dry, dark place, will survive a hundred years—that is, a lifetime. More if it is especially well printed, and only carefully handled, but a hundred years is a safe bet. Plenty of time to read it as a child, hold onto it through adolescence and adulthood, and then give it to your first great-grandchild. That’s as much forever as any of us can reasonably conceive.
By this measure, the printed book lasts forever, but the digital book—as yet—does not. A cast iron pan, properly cared-for, will last forever; a cheap aluminum pan may not. A well-crafted chair, loved by its owner, will last forever; an allen-wrench constructed Ikea chair will not. Forever, then, is defined by the presence of two unique but necessary components: the physical ability to survive one hundred years (give or take a few), and the presence of a caretaker.
On the former, our digital artifacts are at a disadvantage. Technology changes fast enough that we can’t safely say that a file format that is popular today will work a decade or more in the future, let alone ten decades. But I suspect the latter point—the presence of a caretaker—to be more important here. Technology cannot march along on its own; it needs willing participants. And if, as participants in that technology, we assert our role as caretakers of our cultural memory, then it cannot move on without us.
This is, admittedly, an idealistic stance. But Irish monks saved Western Christian thought with little more than ink and paper, and we have a few more tools at our disposal. Backup systems intended to save us from technological failure can also rescue files from the capricious acts of an organization like Yahoo. Opportunities for new organizations—those who care about archival quality—abound. APIs mean the skilled among us can find ways to duplicate content, storing it in as many different places as possible. Faster connections and more bandwidth mean we can share files with others, appointing them to take over for us should our own lives be tragically cut short. And there are those among us sounding the call that we neglect our role as caretakers at our own peril.
This is not to excuse Yahoo’s behavior, nor is it to say that we will be able to save everything, even if our efforts are heroic. But no civilization has ever saved everything; acknowledging that fact does not obviate the need to try and save as much as we can. The technological means to produce an archive are not beyond our skills; sadly, right now at least, the will to do so is insufficient. Let’s hope that doesn’t last forever.