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13 March 2019

Why we are in danger of entering a digital dark age, losing huge amounts of online information

There are things I’ve written that no longer exist, the sites that published them now defunct, and the original documents trapped on some ancient hard drive.

By Sarah Ditum

There are holes in the internet, flaring and spreading like the white ghosts consuming an old black-and-white photograph. In columns I wrote just a few years ago, links I carefully added to my argument now lead to nothing; worse, I can barely remember what these pages ever contained, because I’ve delegated masses of my recall to Google. There are things I’ve written that no longer exist, the sites that published them now defunct, and the original documents trapped on some ancient hard drive in a file format that might as well be a dead language.

There’s a perverse release in this destruction. The promise-slash-threat of the internet, after all, is that whatever goes on there is on there forever – and as Jared O’Mara could tell you, the things that persist from your online history are not always kind to you. O’Mara, the MP for Sheffield Hallam, was suspended and later resigned from the Labour Party after the Guido Fawkes website revealed he was responsible for a litany of sexist, homophobic and xenophobic forum comments. For many, O’Mara’s protests that he was no longer the laddish young man who made those posts were not enough.

But while the gradual decay of the internet will spare many people (deservingly or not) from being trapped by their stupid past selves, others suffer unambiguous loss. A friend reactivated an old dating account recently and was sad to find that, because of website updates in her absence, her profile had been stripped bare, contacts and conversations permanently lost. There’s no way to recover the information we entrust to third parties. We use Facebook, Gmail and Dropbox in the expectation that whatever we put there today will still exist tomorrow, but that can be a misplaced faith.

It can be misplaced even when we think we control the architecture. In 2007, Rocky Mountain News reporter Kevin Vaughan published a 34-part investigative story about a 1961 bus-train collision in Colorado that killed 20 children. The series, called “The Crossing”, was a triumph: not only was it a Pulitzer finalist, but it gave restitution to a traumatised community that had never had its loss truly recognised before. It was also a powerful example of digital storytelling, using then cutting-edge Adobe Flash software to create an interactive “experience”. “Somebody asked John Temple [the Rocky’s editor] how long the series was going to be on the internet,” recalled Vaughan in an interview with the Atlantic, “and John said, ‘Forever.’”

“Forever” turned out to mean about two years. In 2009, the Rocky went under – one of the many casualties of the internet’s advance. Then its website began to crumble and, within a few months, “The Crossing” had ceased to exist. The editor’s promise of immortality was hollow. Four years later, when Vaughan had finally secured the necessary permissions to restore his story to the internet from a CD-Rom copy (and who even has a CD-Rom drive now?), he found technical obstacles: Flash, once universal, was now an anachronism. “The Crossing” had to be re-created for an entirely new set of standards.

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Vaughan felt a particular moral duty to ensure the persistence of “The Crossing”. But that doesn’t apply to most of the web – and even what is saved will be transformed. When you go through newspaper archives, you get the context too: the items on the facing pages, the ads, the reader letters. The internet is, instead, a sort of perpetual now.

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Initiatives like the British Library’s UK Web Archive or the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine offer some resistance to the rot by taking regular snapshots of selected sites. But their usefulness depends on future technology being capable of handling what they preserve. My eyes are as good for reading the Book of Kells as they are for this issue of the New Statesman, but ask my smartphone to handle a web page from just ten years ago and there’s a fair chance it will spit out a bunch of illegibly formatted text with apologetic red crosses where there used to be an image hosted on Photobucket (which dropped its free service in 2017).

We are headed for what some have called the “digital dark age”. We generate huge amounts of information but will likely bequeath only a fraction of it to the future. Anything that exists only in digital format is just one technological change or server disaster from disappearing into nothing – whether it’s personal correspondence, vital scientific discoveries or the kind of public records that provide historians with unexpected insights into daily life. Our great grandchildren might end up knowing less about the way we live now than we do about the Romans. Graffiti can preserve public sentiment as long as stone survives. Our tweets will mostly vanish when Twitter’s business model dies.

It’s not just the natural fear of oblivion that makes this such a disturbing prospect. It’s also that this is exactly counter to what we want to believe about digital information. It’s supposed to be deathless – a purified realm of zeros and ones that exists beyond physical degeneration, beyond time even. An artist friend who works in digital media pointed out to me that the only frame of reference we have for immaterial spaces (which is what the internet is) comes from religious ideas about the afterlife. Digitisation feels like it should be a kind of ascension.

Yet instead of preserving us in essential form, it contorts us: bits of our history that would be better shed remain intractably with us, while data that feels like a critical part of who we are can be erased on a corporate whim. Our selves are shaped by digital information, and will eventually be lost to it, a second and irrevocable death coming to all of us when server farms eventually power-down for good.

This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control