I saved this screenshot from Tumblr some time ago:
I’ve been reading a lot about the nature of information lately, and one statement in particular1Hastily jotted down in a notebook, without citation, sigh has stayed with me:
The validity of whatever information we possess erodes over time. Hard drives can fail; phone numbers can fall out of use. Likewise, access can decay: websites shut down; programs get deprecated; file types or formats cease to be supported. Someone given a floppy disk of people’s contact details, for example, would have trouble using that information, even if nobody in that directory ever changed phone numbers.
Every now and then I wonder about how this affects — well, a lot of things, really. Our relationship with tech, for one thing; our ability to remember or learn from prior knowledge, for another.2Anil Dash rightly points out that the dearth of proper documentation and the speed of information erosion lead quite naturally to an ahistorical view of the tech world that can be quite crippling. On a smaller, pettier level, I think about the bits and pieces of personal history scattered across old OneNote and Evernote files, abandoned email accounts, profiles on social media networks that no longer exist.
Even setting aside the proliferation of streaming services and DRM3digital rights management measures, I wonder: Do we ever actually own anything digital?
Of course, digital objects don’t have a monopoly on impermanence. In an article for the BBC, Lawrence Norfolk wrote, “It is transitional. Work passes through it on the way to becoming something else.” He wasn’t talking about streaming services, but notebooks: paper, ink, writing accumulated over time. There’s a similar erosion of relevance and validity, online or offline. As for access, well: the notebook Norfolk was describing was lost on a train.
But digital objects are more vulnerable to access decay than physical items, I think. Notebooks can be destroyed or misplaced, i.e., unfortunate events can render these inaccessible to us. But a Flash video, a link out to a different website, an Adobe Photoshop project file can be lost to us even if we never do anything, even if the file simply sits on our desktop or the link stays forever on our blog — simply because the digital world would have moved on, often sooner than we’d expected.
What, then, would we be left with?