Way back in 2004 the two founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, thought that it would be a cool idea to scan all the printed books in the world and make them available online. This was at the time when their company’s motto (apart from the guff about not being evil) was to “organise all the world’s information”. Given that the obvious places to look for large collections of books are university libraries, they decided to start there, so they set out to persuade university librarians to let them scan their holdings.
One of the first institutions they approached was a very large American university: they went to visit its librarian and found him very supportive of their ambitious project. Accordingly, the deal was easily sealed. Afterwards, though, the boys noticed that their librarian friend seemed pensive, and so asked him what was wrong. “Nothing’s wrong,” he replied. “I’m just wondering how we can ensure that these scans will be available to readers in 400 years’ time when Google is no longer around. Because it won’t be.”
When the librarian told me the story, he remarked that the two lads looked astonished: the thought that Google might be mortal seemed never to have occurred to them. But of course he was right: the lives of most corporations are short. In the US, for example, average lifespan of S&P 500 companies is 21 years and declining. So if we wish to ensure that things are preserved in perpetuity, we need to ensure the institutions that curate them are likewise very long-lived. Given that, it seemed appropriate that our conversation was taking place in the university library in Cambridge, an institution that has been around for more than 800 years and may well be around for another 800.
With digital artefacts, however, preservation involves more than just the longevity of buildings and institutions; it also involves continuity of the technology needed to access older digital artefacts. It’s like the problem of how now to view those charming VHS videos you shot when the kids were small – but on steroids. There’s a nice cartoon about this somewhere that shows a Nasa control room at the moment when one of the agency’s 30-year-old probes has just begun sending back data from deep space. Staff members are joyously celebrating and back-slapping. And then a guy asks: “Can anyone here remember how to install Windows 95?”
As our world becomes remorselessly digitised, we should be worried about this. When historians of the future start digging for the records of our time they will encounter many black holes. This applies not just to institutions and corporations, but also to each one of us. Think of the billions of photographs we cheerfully upload to social media every day; they are now stored “in the cloud” of giant server farms owned by tech companies. But when you die, they will be effectively gone for good unless you have thoughtfully arranged access to your account for a friend or family member. Likewise for all your emails and tweets, not to mention those Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Signal chats that you so enjoyed and which charted your social life. All gone once the grim reaper has called, unless there are arrangements in place for the storage of – and access to – them in perpetuity.
Apart from social media posts, the other invaluable source for future social historians seeking insight into the ways humans lived in the run-up to climate catastrophe is the blogosphere. This is what produces the “user-generated content” celebrated by the legal scholar Yochai Benkler in his book The Wealth of Networks: a space for writing and conversation that lies outside the market. It’s effectively a digital instantiation of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “the public sphere” – an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems. And as such it’s a space in which important conversations happen.
Some blogging is done on corporate platforms such as Blogger, but much of the best stuff is on personal blogs hosted by individual writers. These people (of whom I am one) pay for their own web-hosting, generally write for no payment and are difficult or impossible to censor. But when they die, their blogs generally die, and their thinking – good, bad and indifferent – is lost to posterity.
So it was interesting that Matt Mullenweg, the founder of the dominant WordPress blogging platform, recently came up with a proposition: “Secure your online legacy for a century.” That sounded like good news. The bad news was the fee: $38,000. This is clearly absurd – “a way of rich people assuring their precious content lives on after their death”, as one critic put it. But if we were serious about preserving a record of what people are saying and thinking at this moment in human history, there’s a germ of a good idea here – provided it comes with a realistic price attached.
What I’ve been reading
A lovely essay on the ethics of Silicon Valley by Sherry Turkle on the Crooked Timber blog.
Mind the gap
Tim Harford tackles employment inequality and “greedy jobs” that eat your time on his blog.
Can a computer write like Eudora Welty? An intriguing essay by Randy Sparkman on the Literary Hub site probes the real utility of a large language model.
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