We are living in the digital dark age. Wikipedia says:
the digital dark age is a lack of historical information in the digital age as a direct result of outdated file formats, software, or hardware that becomes corrupt, scarce, or inaccessible as technologies evolve and data decays.
Another way to say that: did you think computers would help preserve information? Actually, they might make it deteriorate even quicker.
Digital Data Won’t Last Forever
Eg, lets say 20 years ago you recorded your masters thesis in a Microsoft Word document and saved it to a floppy disk… well, that information is probably lost forever. It’s really hard to find a floppy disk reader, the floppy disk is probably deteriorated, and there might not be any programs that can read that old file format anymore.
Or how about this: you have a blog, like me. You hope to read from it in 20 years. Well, if you’re self-hosted, you need to keep paying the bills, otherwise the site will be taken down within a few months. Or let’s say you’re on WordPress.com, and you don’t need to worry about paying for hosting. Your blog will be around for decades, right? Maybe, assuming the company doesn’t decide your free blog is a liability and turns it off, or the company doesn’t get bought out and shut down.
These aren’t theoretical problems:
- MSN messenger, which my friends and wasted tons of time on in middle school, was shut down by Microsoft;
- all my wife’s data on FluidSurveys got erased after they were bought out;
- when the LDS Scriptures app was discontinued, I nearly lost all my journal entries…
The data we are generating today is no safer.
And would you like your children or grandchildren to be able to read your blog in 50 years? Or 100? Well, the prognosis on the data living that long isn’t good.
But Facebook Data Will Last Forever, Right?
I’ve caught myself thinking: but Facebook’s data will surely be around in 20 or 50 years, right? It’s so big, how could it disappear? Well, who knows what the future holds, but I think things are starting to sour. Here’s some things that could go wrong for them:
- people stop using it (in favor of some other social network), and then people from 50 or 100 years from now view it as cat GIFs and fake news, and so decide to just get rid of it
- government regulates it to death and decides it should be shut down and inaccessible
- your privacy settings only permit you and friends to see your info, but you’re all passed on, so the information is totally inaccessible per you privacy settings
- Facebook decides to only have paid accounts, and you either can’t pay, decide not to pay, or are dead and so can’t choose
- Facebook gets hacked and the data is corrupted
I would guess your Facebook info will probably be around 20-30 years, then it’s likely lost. We’ll see, but one thing is certain: Facebook has made no guarantee, nor can they, that your data will be kept forever.
The Typical Suggestions For Preserving Your Data
I’ve read various tips on how to preserve your data and story for as long as possible, but they all seem rooted in the 90s. They usually mention:
- Save your files, images, videos etc, to an external hard drive
- Save them to disks, or flash drive, or another hard drive, and send it to a family member or friend living far away
- Update those backups every few years, and move them onto new file formats when they become available
Those feel like suggestions from before the Internet was mainstream. Not only do they sound like a good deal of work, they also won’t work once you’re not around.
Elsewhere I also saw people suggested uploading to cloud storage like Dropbox or Google Drive. That’s probably a good solution for preserving it for 10 years, maybe 20. But Google, for example, is notorious for shutting down services once they’ve basically grown bored with them (remember Google Checkout, Google Wave, or Google Code?)
I suppose along with considering the technology, we need to consider the organization that’s preserving the data: will this organization be around for decades or centuries?
How I’d Like To Preserve My Data
In order for people to preserve their data, like stories and media, it needs to be really easy, preferably automatic.
Here’s what I’d like to see: a WordPress plugin (and extensions for other blogging platforms) that automatically sends your blog posts to:
- Family Search
- The Internet Archive
- Government Historical Databases
- Whatever other organization dedicated to preserving data you can think of
Ie, give the data to the organizations who’s purpose is to preserve that information.
Family Search is the best bet for preserving the data, in my biased opinion. They’re not only focused on family history and preserving it, but the fact it’s actually part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a big plus for me: they’re religiously dedicated to preserving that data. I think they’re one of your best bets for preserving your data into the next century.
The Internet Archive is trying their best to record a snapshot of every website online. They don’t have everything, but they have a lot. It has several snapshots of this blog you can peruse. But it sometimes struggles with more complex sites (for example, on their snapshot of this blog, the “Older Posts” button, which is supposed to load older posts, doesn’t work.)
Also, I slightly worry that they might run out of funding in the coming decades, or there could be legal complications to continuing it (eg, Europe’s GDPR gives websites users the “right to be forgotten“, which means if I ask for a website to take down all its info on me, they’re legally required to do that… so what happens if I ask that of the Internet Archive? Bye-bye historical record).
Various Government Historical Databases exist, although I’m not sure if they will take an interest in preserving your story, or if they will make it easy.
And I’m sure there are other good organizations dedicated to preserving data that could be added to my list (start-up companies don’t count, in my opinion, as they usually don’t last more than a decade).
I’d like this tool to work with WordPress as it’s open source, free software, meaning it will continue to exist independent of any companies. It’s also pretty ubiquitous these days. And I figure if you put something in a blog post, you probably want it to be visible today and forever. (Also, WordPress has “private” and “protected” options for posts, meaning you could have posts be private on your blog, but still be published to Family Search so that they’ll become public when you pass on.)
But maybe I’m just thinking WordPress because that’s what I’m familiar with. Maybe this could be a more generally accessible tool?
How Will You Preserve Your Data for Future Generations?
If there were a tool for automatically sending your stories, data, and media to organizations dedicated to its preservation, how would you like it to work?
And what do you think is the best way for your data to survive the digital dark age?