The Internet as a Cultural and Historical Archive

What a treasure trove. Forums like this (Everything Else) in particular. Where people just talk about anything at all.

As long as data keeps getting migrated, and the massive Internet archives that are being made by Google et al. continue to grow, social scientists of the future are going to have a field day with this stuff.

Compare the sheer amount of human day-to-day living now being recorded by forumites and bloggers everywhere to the rare surviving diary of a person bright enough to chronicle their life for life. Throw in the fact that they’re usually made of biodegradable paper and you have to wonder how little we humans really left behind as evidence of our lives in the past.

The history books in fifty years from now are going to be so much better, and bigger. If a future-Milch comes along and wants to create a show like Deadwood, he’ll have a lot more source info to go from!

I was thinking about this the other day. Not so much forums as history, but thinking about blogs and what a rich source they will be in future. Sure, most of it is teenage emo drivel, but still fantastic compared to past history, which is mainly biographies and autobiographies of famous people. Normal people history is usually way more interesting than famous people history, to me anyway. Who cares how some inbred aristrocrat lived in 1750, I want to know how the closest analog to me lived their life.

If only we could have all of this empowerment of the common man without the connected potential for a worldwide apocalypse.

Cynic! Get thee hence from here!

Actually, I’m kidding. I had the same thought. It will only be a valuable resource if the people of the future are 1) around to enjoy it 2) care as much about studying ourselves and our history as we do.

Who knows what the next 50 years will bring? Maybe all efforts will be focused on saving us from imminent greenhouse gas death. Or fighting Global Terrorism. sigh.

Most people today don’t care about history, Ephraim. It’s nice that you do though, but don’t think that is representative.

Good point. I am, most definitely, not a representative sample!

But hey, for those who are into history, sociology, psychology, political science, etc… in 50 years we’ll have a lot more, and better, history than in the past 50 years. It’s amazing how much progress we’ve made in some areas in very little time. And how that progress means that we’re leaving a more indelible stamp on history than our ancestors.

Even on a personal level, our great-great-great-grandkids, if we choose to share our online identities with our loved ones (for those of us who don’t use our full names), will be able to find out more about us than we can ever know about our same ancestors. That’s a legacy. Men used to have to make monuments (or more accurately, have monuments carved) of wind-resistant stone to make themselves memorable to history. Now all of us can pass down a history more easily, even unintentionally!

History is tragic and farcical bunk, and you are condemned to repeat it until it’s over.
–Francis Ford Marxayana

Forgive my ignorance, but does digital information really carry any greater assurance of preservation and longevity than, say, a book in the Royal Library of Alexandria?

You do realize that the Royal Library of Alexandria lost a lot of its contents to library fires, right?

Yeah… that was sort of my point :)

Oh, that whole sarcasm thing. That’s so last election cycle.

Well the question was sincere, though. Is our information really more permanent because it’s digitized?

I think so. My understanding is that if you want something safely archived, then you can truly store it forever now.

This assumes that civilization doesn’t come to a screeching halt and we end up without electricity, of course.

Companies like Google, whose very mission statement is “…[SIZE=-1]to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.[/SIZE]” now have enough financial stability to make it very likely to survive longer than a book in the Library of Alexandria.

I suppose that depends on whether you think we’re going to technologically regress into Eloi and Morlocks or something.

Yeah, there are a ton of advantages, but there are also 3 issues with digital preservation to consider:

  1. Deterioration. Magnetic drives are definitely not permanent; they need to be refreshed (re-recorded, whatever you want to call it) or the data starts to fade.

  2. Format drift. Basically, what happens when we all stop using (and supporting) something like the .doc? We can go back and convert it (or emulate it) or whatever, but it may end up being costly. An example of this is apparently Visicalc files from the 80’s. Another would be DOS games.

  3. Damn. I swear there’s a third, but I can’t remember it.

Just to go on a tangent here: I realize what a pain in the ass it can be run certain old games, assuming they can run at all. So how the heck does Bill Williams’ Alley Cat still run perfectly after more than two decades?

I just wanted to state my agreement with the basic premise here that the Internet is really cool.

I would break format drift into software formats and hardware. Having a box full of punched tape or reel-to-reel magnetic tape or even 5 1/4" floppies is a formidable obstacle in its own right, and it will probably fall to the same sort of black-art preservationists who maintain obsolete music formats such as wax cylinders to access the data on the things.

Being able to migrate data or emulate software/hardware systems is a more difficult problem and is an active research topic in which the Europeans seem to be leading the way, although we have a few technologists over here working on it like IBM’s Raymond Lorie and his Universal Virtual Computer which was tested (used?) as a preservation tool by, who else?, the Dutch National Library.

I’d say number 3 issue of digital preservation is caring. You can escape hardware and software obsolesence as long as there is someone who remembers that the data is there and cares about accessing it. Things like blogs get lost not just because of hardware failure, but also because the guy who wrote it forgot his password, or failed to pay his bill on time, or just stopped caring. A couple of countries (Sweden, Australia) have tried to overcome this by archiving everything on the Internet in their country’s domain. Well, Sweden has done this, I’m not sure the Australian library has the legal right to collect anything more than the “official” part of their piece of the Web. I’m sure the other Nordic countries have thought about/done something along these lines, but it’s been I while since I’ve read of it, so who knows?

It is, isn’t it? But I’m not really talking about the fact that I can see blown up crotch shots of Britney Spears hours after they are taken. I’m talking about the fact that in two hundred years, when Britney is viewed as our Marie Antoinette, people will be able to gaze upon her cooch and reflect upon a more innocent time (when everyone wasn’t a hermaphrodite) with digital clarity.

Data is “safer” now than in ancient Egypt because people storing data are in a position to be able to protect against disaster much more effectively.

In Alexandria, to have “offsite storage”, it meant hand copying everything and having the space to store it and the ability to move it to the 2nd location. While space is still an issue, data is “smaller” today (although maybe not on the whole, since there’s more of it), the other two are much smaller issues. Copying is easy to do, and once the offsite locations are up and running, transfer can be done over existing infrastructure.

For example, if I want “offsite” backup of stuff I deem important, I have free access to ~2.5 GB worth of space with a free Gmail account (and a GMail drive tool). They take care of the multiple, off-site backups on their end, and I’m confident that if Terrorists fly a plane into my house, I’ll be able to get at all that data.