history in the digital age

It seems to me that the digitisation of information over the last few decades throws up all sorts of interesting questions about the storing and accessibility of information into the future. The emergence of web 2.0 and participatory websites has meant an explosion of information on the internet – anyone with an internet connection can publish their views easily on the web.

I think the interesting question is, assuming this stuff is worth keeping, is it going to last?The internet is really a pretty transient place when you think about it; are all the statuses we post on Facebook, and all the tweets, photos, and blog posts still going to be around in 10 or 20 years time? Are the websites we post on going to survive? Are the files we save to our computers going to be readable if we want to have a dig through our past? There won’t be a physical copy of this stuff to fall back on, no bundles of letters hidden away in the attic. Emails increasingly aren’t even stored on computers, but rather in some server farm in the United States. I should mention that it isn’t all doom and gloom though, there seems to be a bit of a movement to allow data freedom and downloadability from websites recently. You can even download your Facebook! (Go to account settings, then click ‘download your information’.)

I don’t envy the historians who will try to write things about the 21st century in the future. They’re going to have to wade through mountains of information and sort the memes,  pictures of cats, and inane blog posts like this one from the stuff actually worth anything. Unless you’re doing some kind of sociological study of internet pop culture, most of the stuff people post on the internet is going to be junk. I wonder what they’ll think of us reading back through our tweets in the future – maybe they’ll be bemused by our weird fascination with Justin Bieber and vampires and vapid songs about how Saturday comes after Friday. Maybe they’ll wonder why so many young people in developed countries, wrapped up safely in privilege, didn’t care more about what was happening in the world. Perhaps they’ll wonder why everyone thought they had something valuable to say, and they’ll place more value on quality rather than quantity.

In all likelihood, though, they’ll probably be living in a more extreme version of the present day with one million per cent more of everything. We’ll probably be notified within seconds any time a celebrity gets caught smoking drugs on video, or messily breaks up with their boyfriend/girlfriend. Who knows?

There’s going to be a ‘poverty of riches’ all right, and that’s assuming they can even access our file formats that will have become obsolete. I just hope they don’t judge us too harshly.

Edited October 2013

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