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How Digital Storage Is Changing the Way We Preserve History

Ancient hieroglyphics and scrolls have survived centuries, but digital storage is fragile.
Photo via Flickr user Saulo Pratti

A few years ago, I started using a digital diary platform called Oh Life. I'd relied on a notebook to jot down daily reflections for years, but this was infinitely more elegant. It was more private than a notebook, less clunky, and the platform even let users upload entires by sending an email, which meant I could record my observations, frustrations, and memories without obviously writing in a diary.


But when I logged on recently, searching for something I'd written on Oh Life years ago, all of my entires had vanished. In fact, the whole site had been shut down, thousands of archives deleted, because they couldn't make Oh Life "financially stable." Years of my personal history were gone.

This kind of disappearance, while manageable on a personal scale, is to historians a warning sign of problems to come with recording and preserving our history in the digital age. Ancient hieroglyphics and scrolls have survived centuries, but digital storage is fragile, the files easily swept away or locked up in encryption. The technology we use to store things today might not be around tomorrow, and many of the platforms we use to store information are owned by private companies, which makes it harder for archival institutions to save them. And how much of what we upload online is worth saving at all?

The dizzying landscape of digital preservation is outlined in Abby Smith Rumsey's new book, When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. Rumsey, a historian by trade, worked for over a decade with the Library of Congress's National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, where she tried to troubleshoot how to store digital materials in the long-term. She doesn't have all the answers, but her book offers a sweeping view of how societies have preserved massive amounts of information in the past and how our digital age might find solutions in the future.


VICE: Why talk about memory?
Abby Smith Rumsey: My own concern, as a historian, is that our generation be able to leave really robust records of what we've done, so that people in the future can investigate how we lived our lives as we experienced them. In the digital age, there's a lot circulating in the way of information, but none of it is kept very thoroughly. It's a spotty record. Technically, we don't know how to preserve it yet. Even more than that, what do we preserve? How do we know what's valuable?

Are these questions unique to the digital era?
Not entirely. Centuries ago, people also felt overwhelmed by too much information. They thought it was terrible to print in books, and even people like Thomas Jefferson thought the downfall of the world would be all these people reading novels and entertaining themselves. This was an issue that our parents railed against when television first became popular—they thought our brains were going to rot, and we'd no longer have the ability to concentrate on what's important. We'll always have more information than we know what to do with, but our skills and developing filters for sorting through what does and doesn't matter will grow faster. We're experiencing a digital vertigo that people will cease to experience 30 or 40 years from now, when our natural filters have become accustomed to filtering out a lot of what we think of as static now. And that's where we're lagging right now.


So we just have more stuff to sort through today?
Right, there's more stuff to go through. There's more of everything now than there was then [including people to sort through this information]. One of the things we tend to neglect is that—and this is unique to our age—it is not just human beings who will be reading and writing. It is machines now who do most of the reading for us. For example, when astronomers gather data from their instruments in space, they don't actually sit down and read that material. It's read by their machines. They tell the machines how to analyze what to look for, they program the machines, but machines are the only thing capable of reading at that scale. We can read our email, but when we actually want to search the entire archive of our email inbox over the course of our lives, we will use a machine, some algorithm of the machine, to do the searching for us.

"Without all the equipment to play it back, a hard drive would be meaningless to me, whereas you could take a book off the shelf at 500 years old and understand most of it." — Abby Smith Rumsey

Is there a concern that, in the future, machines won't know how to read these materials? Technology changes so rapidly that it seems the way we store information today will be totally obsolete in a few decades.
Yes, there are a couple challenges. One is that the materials themselves—digital code—requires machines to inscribe and play back. I could have a hard drive, and without all the equipment to play it back, it would be meaningless to me, whereas you could take a book off the shelf at 500 years old and understand most of it, if you can read the language. It's also very energy-dependent. If we're dependent on this technology, we need to secure reliable streams of electricity.


Another very real challenge, particularly for public institutions like libraries trying to preserve digital materials, is that a lot of the digital code is proprietary. It's owned by companies like Apple and Microsoft. It's actually not in the public domain. If I write my documents in Word, I own the content of the documents, but if Word goes away, there's not much I can do about it. It's owned by Microsoft. Libraries are having a really hard time with this. Copyright is one of the biggest problems in digital preservation and one which doesn't get discussed at all because it sounds arcane.

Right—an entire archive of digital materials can vanish if they're stored on a platform that disappears.
I have a friend who had a family member who died. They put together an online condolence book—it was a site where people could write remembrances and stuff like that. Several years later, when they wanted to look back on it, they found that the site had closed [and all of the condolences people had written were gone]. This is going to happen to more things than we think. Many of the sites we use that are free, or that you rent space on, like a wedding site, they're private companies. You don't have ownership of it.

Is all of that stuff worth saving, though? I know the Library of Congress archives everyone's tweets. Do you think that's useful, or is that excessive?
We won't know the value of these things [to future generations], and part of what's hard is that machines will make sense of the volume. I think it's brilliant on the part of the Library of Congress, and very brave on the part of Twitter, to save massive amounts of data without tying to figure out which part of it is important but just trying to save it in such a way that people in the future can find the right information and make sense of it. They're going to make it possible for people 20 years from now to figure out what was important about Twitter feeds during those years. Is every tweet really worth saving? All I can say, is we won't know for a while.


What about human memory? Is technology replacing the need for the human brain to remember things?
No, but it's sort of a complicated no. We are very dependent upon our phones, and I have to actually be near the phone in order to retrieve information. Things that, even 20 years ago, I would've memorized—somebody's telephone number, or my own telephone number—these things are now all stored external to me. But that was also true when I used to write things down. The temptation is always to try to save more information than we need to because we say to ourselves, "Oh, I might be able to use that one day." I mean, you should see my [internet browswer] bookmarks! The number of things I bookmark because I think I'm going to go back someday and read them… It's just part of the endless human curiosity we have about the world.

We can store more on our machines than we could store on things like notebooks and in photographs before, and I view that as quite liberating. The more the mind can be freed of certain types of memory tasks, the freer the mind is to engage in other activities that machines cannot do for us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Abby Smith Rumsey's latest book, When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future, will be published on March 1, 2016.

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