Off Topic: The Internet Sometimes Forgets

I’ll begin with two short anecdotes:

The first comes from the sci-fi book Death’s End by Cixin Liu. In the story, our solar system is facing the threat of a catastrophic destruction, and the main characters are discussing the construction of a Museum of Humanity. The goal is to save our history, our beliefs, and our greatest works of art in hope that some alien civilization will discover it in possibly millions (or billions!) of years. The question is, how do you preserve all this information for such a long time? Well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers – it is a very good book series – but I will tell you that the idea of storing this information on data drives, the same ones that form the backbone of the internet, is quickly dismissed because that hardware degrades too fast.

The second anecdote – and the reason I decided to write this piece – started when I began to re-read a few of my old blog posts. I noticed that a lot of outgoing links (that is, other webpages that I’d linked to) were broken or dead. Sometimes the pages had been moved, sometimes they’d been edited or deleted, and sometimes it seemed like an entire website had disappeared off the internet. Mind you, these were sites that seemed perfectly fine two or three years ago, and now they’re just gone.

This happens because websites and internet services require upkeep. For this blog, that upkeep is as simple as remembering to pay my hosting bill, but for others it involves complicated stuff like server maintenance and security patches. When a blogger/webmaster/company decides it’s no longer worth their time and money, all that information and data can vanish.

This isn’t a phenomena known to only smaller websites either. Geocities, which hosted many personal websites in the early days of the internet, shut down in 2009 and deleted all its old content. Google Plus, a once viable contender for social media dominance, recently ended its services. And there’s no guarantee that bigger companies like WordPress, Facebook, or Amazon will be around forever. Even The Internet Archive, which runs the incredibly useful Wayback Machine, has had fires and funding issues.

I’ll admit that all of this worrying seems odd. If anything, the common concern is that too much of our past will be archived online. Teens are often warned to be mindful of what they post on social media because “the internet never forgets!” You don’t want something you did online when you were 15 to ruin your career when you’re 45. We certainly don’t think about digital preservation very often, but we should.

So if you want to save your content – pictures, writings, etc. – what should you do? In Death’s End, the solution was to carve the most important work of humanity onto the walls of a cave on Pluto – something like that could potentially last millions of years. But that might be overkill for most of us. A more practical solution would be to burn all of your important information to an archival DVD, which could last over 100 years. Though, you might potentially run into data compatibility issues sometime in the future.

But if you really want your stuff to last a long time, a better solution might simply involve paper and ink. Print your stuff or write it down using archival quality supplies. If preserved properly, it could last hundreds of years. For proof, look no further than The New York Public Library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible; it is over 500 years old and still looks beautiful.

So, if you want your digital stuff to last, take action. Back it up or print it out. You just have to first figure out what’s worth saving – a complicated topic on its own. But that’s a blog post for another time.

2 thoughts on “Off Topic: The Internet Sometimes Forgets

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