The memory of a nation in a digital world

Act quickly or our intellectual record will disappear down a black hole.

It is an irony of the digital age that at a time when we are used to having easy access to seemingly endless information and knowledge, so much of it is disappearing into a digital black hole. For 450 years the concept of legal deposit has helped to preserve the nation’s intellectual record. The requirement for publishers and distributors to send one copy of anything they publish in print to the British Library has been vital in building up a collection which now contains some 150 million items. 

In 2003 the Legal Deposit Libraries Act extended the same principle to cover digital content. However, nine years later we are still waiting for the legislation to be implemented. We have just come to the end of the third consultation on new regulations in just two years. While all the talking and redrafting has continued, vast amounts of our digital heritage have disappeared for ever.

People’s thoughts and experiences are increasingly recorded on websites, blogs, Tweets and other social media rather than in the diaries and letters which have survived from the past. Given the ease with which websites can be updated the lifespan of anything that is written online is considerably shorter than the printed word. 

The oldest example of writing can be found on clay tablets that are over 5,000 years old. We recently acquired the oldest surviving European book, the St Cuthbert Gospel, which is over 1,300 years old. The average life expectancy of a webpage is less than 75 days.

The London 2012 Olympics is generating a great deal of comment and discussion. Much of the story is being told through the websites of sports associations, cultural organisations and online contributions from the general public. While we have been waiting for the new legislation to be implemented we have done what we can to save as much of our digital memory about big stories and events such as the Olympics. This has meant working with publishers to make voluntary agreements to preserve as much digital material as possible. However, until the legislation is implemented the majority of these websites cannot be legally captured and preserved.

It has been estimated that less that 1 per cent of all online activity related to the London Olympics will be saved. Future generations of researchers will also search in vain for much of the reaction to major events such as the 7/7 bombings, the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal and the London riots. 

A lot of what appears online may appear very trivial and unimportant. However, we have learnt that it is not possible for any generation to accurately predict what those who come after us will deem to be important. Sometimes what seems insignificant or even goes unnoticed proves to be the gems unearthed by later researchers. Who would have thought that the diary of a young Dutch girl would have become so important? However, if Anne Frank’s thoughts had been kept as a blog or Tweeted rather than written down in a journal, what are the chances that we would still be able to read them today?

It would also be ironic if the web pages and blogs of our media-savvy political leaders were washed away almost as quickly as the ink on Thomas Cromwell’s letters took to dry. Despite the ease with which we can record and communicate our thoughts today, the historians and novelists of the future may struggle to find much of this material and therefore be unable to gain the same insight into today’s Thomas Cromwells.

It is a matter of great regret that it will never be possible to plug the gap in our understanding of UK opinion about major social and cultural issues at the very beginning of the digital age. Will academics in the future feel the same sense of loss about some of this material that we feel today about the missing works of Ancient Greece’s greatest writers and thinkers?

The UK has been in the slow lane when it comes to preserving digital material. Non-print legal deposit is now widespread internationally, including much of Europe, Canada and New Zealand. It is two years since the United States Library of Congress announced that it would be keeping copies of every Tweet. The latest version of the UK Government’s proposed regulations is less than perfect. It would exempt start-ups and micro businesses from depositing offline publications or the need to provide passwords to enable us to harvest their websites.

Given that these businesses account for 80 per cent of publishers, a great deal of information would continue to be lost. The British Library would like to see this exclusion waived completely.  However, the priority now is to implement the legislation without further delay. We must avoid any more of our heritage disappearing forever into the digital black hole and ensure the British Library continues to be this country’s collective memory long into the future.

Dame Lynne Brindley is CEO of the British Library

What are social networking sites doing to our collective memory? (Photo: Getty Images)
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Why we, and Theresa May, will be watching George Osborne carefully

Osborne will use the Standard as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?

In his biography of the man who, in May, will become the new editor of the London Evening Standard while remaining as the MP for Tatton, the Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh described how from an early age George Osborne “possessed a searing ambition to be a person of consequence”. Ganesh called Osborne “a psychological seer” and a “perspicacious analyst of people, including himself”. Moving through the gears, he added: “He has been a Pauline, a Bullingdon boy and a Bilderberg panjandrum, but he now belongs to the most truly privileged elite: those who are happy in their work.”

The Austerity Chancellor was published in 2012 when Osborne, who is 45, was considered to be David Cameron’s inevitable successor as leader of the Conservative Party and thus a future prime minister. As we all know, it did not quite turn out that way, the small matter of the EU referendum disrupting even the best-laid plans. Since being unceremoniously sacked last year by Theresa May, Osborne, who is an unapologetic liberal globaliser (he once told me that the book that had influenced him the most was Mill’s On Liberty), has been assiduously plotting his return to public life while assembling a portfolio of well-remunerated stipends, including a four-days-a-month contract with the asset management firm BlackRock, for which he is paid £650,000.

Before Christmas, Osborne was telling friends that he felt “unrepresented” by May’s Conservative Party. Because of the collapse of the Labour Party, he had concluded that the Brexit debate amounted, in essence, to an argument within the conservative family, among the Tory party, the press and the business community. The Scottish National Party naturally had a different view.

The first significant conversation I had with Osborne was at a Notting Hill drinks party – where else? I found him congenial and candid, and soon afterwards he invited me to accompany him on tours of the Nissan plant and the Hitachi factory, both in the north-east of England. The private Osborne is quite different from the public Osborne, who was booed at the 2012 Paralympics and has been caricatured as a “sneering Bullingdon boy”. Those who have worked closely with Osborne, including the former Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander, speak well of him – of his intellect and knowledge of and interest in history, but also of his decency and, most surprisingly, his shyness.

As chancellor, Osborne’s record was mixed. At least two of his Budgets unravelled calamitously, undermining his reputation for strategic intelligence. His dogmatic pursuit of expansionary fiscal contraction delayed Britain’s recovery from the Great Recession and his “fiscal surplus rule”, by which he attempted to bind future governments to a Budget surplus, was humiliatingly abandoned.

Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Standard is fascinating on many levels. For a start, it throws up any number of potential conflicts of interest between his role as an MP and his duty as an editor to challenge power, break stories and create mischief; between  his being a champion of the “Northern Powerhouse” and a celebrant of all things London; between his advisory role at BlackRock and the integrity of the Standard’s City pages. There is, too, the conflict of interest between Osborne, the spurned Remainer, and the Prime Minister, who is thought to resent the insouciance of the Cameroon chumocracy.

It’s certain that Osborne will use the Standard, a free newspaper with a daily distribution of nearly 900,000 copies, as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?

As an editor, I was relaxed about his appointment, even excited by it. It used to be common for politicians to write more than party propaganda for newspapers and magazines and for there to be free movement between Westminster and Fleet Street. Nigel Lawson is a former editor of the Spectator, as is Boris Johnson, who attempted and failed to be both an editor and an MP. Richard Crossman, a long-time contributing writer for the New Statesman, was our (unsuccessful) editor from 1970 to 1972 while staying on as an MP. John Freeman was a Labour MP before becoming a journalist; he edited the NS from 1961 to 1965. Michael Foot edited the Standard in his twenties, as well as Tribune after he entered the Commons.

I’ve no doubt that Osborne can succeed as an editor. Credentialism is overrated. He understands power, he has great contacts, he can write and, as a former applicant to the Times and Economist graduate trainee schemes, he has a long-standing interest in journalism. Whether he can combine editing with his obligations as an MP is for his constituents and his own conscience to decide.

Editing the Standard is no sinecure. Evgeny Lebedev is a hands-on proprietor and his staff have endured deep budget cuts. Osborne will bring to the role a touch of what Saul Bellow called “event-glamour”, as well as serious political purpose. The former austerity chancellor does not lack self-belief and his searing ambition to be a person of consequence is undiminished. Downing Street will be watching him very carefully, and so will his fellow journalists.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution