Darkness falls

There have been comments recently on the dangers of cloud computing for data security and accessibility. At the same time we have been exercised over ways to safeguard our data, including ways to keep it up-to-date by deleting older versions. And Charlie Stross has posted about why using Open Source is another way of protecting data from short-lived, commercially oriented file formats. Finally the British Library has weighed in by making public noises about the essentially ephemeral nature of our digital lives. I have to say that I used to work with staff in a Library in London, where they kept a great deal of historical material from the 17th century onwards. The Librarian was very concerned about the reliability of compact disks for storing archived data as they were only expected to last a few years; his was a mind that thought in centuries. On the other hand, he was just as concerned with modern paper – the acid content is so much higher that the paper becomes brittle and yellowed after relatively few years; certainly my paperbacks from my yoof are almost unreadable. But back to the point…

We are faced with walking the tightrope between the dignity of privacy and the ignominy of being forgotten.

The Domesday Book is a thousand years old and still relatively accessible – so long as you speak the language. Some of its contents are quite personal and include detailed financial information. Of course, the anticipated readership was somewhat smaller than the modern global on-line community. Modern day public servants prefer not to release their financial details to public scrutiny.

Digital information is inherently risky. It can be deleted in an instant, and although it can often be inconveniently retrieved by computer forensic techniques, the bulk of deleted data is not considered worth the time and expense to do so; once it is gone, it is gone for good, potentially leaving us the poorer (as in the case of authors like Charlie Stross). Until we understand how to value our digital data and act appropriately to protect the valuable elements, we may be leaving our descendants facing a black hole in the historical narrative.

Why should we strive to save the millions of pages of self-indulgent angst comprising the majority of the information superhighway (as it used to be called)? How could we find the digital Anne Frank or Samuel Pepys amidst the hormone-fuelled deluge? I would suggest that just because we can’t answer the question now doesn’t get us off the hook with regard to our responsibilities to future readers.

How history remembers us, how posterity embraces us, depends on us ensuring our voices are heard. The minutiae of our lives, so mundane now, may offer immensely satisfying material to historians in the future; we cannot say. Our photographs and art, videos, music, vox pops, and even blogs, reveal us to a wondering world. So long as humans remain curious and restless, they are likely to want to learn about their forebears. Probably we will not ever know their verdict – indeed, there will be many of them, changing from generation to generation, just as our own view of the past differs from the view the more recent past has of those before them. Let us have a presence and not go quietly into the dark, but rage and storm across the void, shouting, screaming our names, demanding to be remembered. At the very least, let us learn to do back-ups.

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