Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Will our digital content stand the test of time?

Image by Esther_G

Burning question: In 500 years, will historians peer through their space helmets at all of our emails, Tweets, blog posts, and FriendFeed threads, and understand our place and time in history?

Or to put it another way -- will/can digital trails have more or less longevity than paper trails?

Here's why I ask. I'm on a bit of a history kick right now, having just wrapped up Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates and diving into David McCullough's John Adams (yes, because I loved the lessons from the miniseries). And the only reason these books are as rich with details and insight about bygone eras as they are is due to the extensive preserved literary records of the time (17th and 18th centuries, respectively).

Case in point: The very title of Vowell's book tips its hat to the Puritans' love of correspondence and publishing, while McCullough found decades' worth of journals, letters, pamphlets, and more in libraries that informed his view of Adams.

But will this be the case for our era, given our increasing volume of digital, electronic, and multimedia content (in addition to paper)? As I see it, here are some potential positives and my correlating fears about them:

POSITIVE: Communication continues unabated, even accelerated, thanks to the speed and frequency of our technology.

FEAR: The result: exponential content creation. Finding every tidbit a person wrote might prove difficult or impossible, leaving an incomplete picture of their contributions.

POSITIVE: We talk on many more platforms to various degrees of depth.

FEAR: Is the range of "shallow to complex" balanced? Will the sum of all content pieces amount to anything meaningful or complex?

POSITIVE: We leave digital footprints that can't be destroyed by wind, fire, or poor storage.

FEAR: We leave digital footprints on technology that will become outmoded, rendering our information irretrievable.

Believe me, I want it ALL to last through time. That's why I journal at night, blog during the day, write letters to my pen pal in Florida, email with friends, tweet constantly. I want my grandchildren to see themselves in me, biographers to peer into my soul, and future folks to know what life was like at the turn of the 21st century.

Narcissistic? Probably. But my words are my only shot at immortality, and I want to ensure they -- I -- survive.

So in my more optimistic moments, I'm convinced our records and interactions will be saved, and our sophisticated archival technology will preserve our paper trail too -- which would amount to an astonishing breadth of material, the likes of which the world has never known.

But then my Internet crashes or my hard drive wipes out, and I break into a cold sweat that our modern communications are too intangible or ephemeral, our tools too finicky, to capture us for posterity.

Please, help a girl get some sleep, and let me know in the comments where you think we're going to end up, be it the history books or cyber graveyard. Your incentive: If I get really famous and have my writing preserved for all time, your thoughts will be coming with me. ;) Thanks!


  1. I often have this fear as well, though not for the same reasons (I only fear that I'll lose client documents or all my music on my external should I pull the bugger out before the little "working" light turns off). I would, however, like to spread some light on your positives/negatives.

    1. There is a LOAD of crap out there, but as it continues to expand, search engines will continue to fine tune their search results to get what you're looking for. You can bet your bottom dollar on that.

    2. I'm not sure about this balance, but when you have sites like Perez Hilton's, it's hard to believe there is enough intellectual property out there to balance it out.

    3. As technology progresses, we'll always have ways to get information from old technology. Look at blu-ray players that also play DVDs, DVD/VHS players. Also, we will have readers that will read the old format and upgrade it to the new. Nothing will be left behind if we want it that badly.

  2. Anonymous10:23 PM

    Julia, I tell my "histerical" friends that we think what we do or say will never be of interest to posterity, but I just recently told them a group is now trying to learn all they can about 22 schoolboys who made up the first football team (1941)in Hendersonville,Tn. The majority of us are still living. Pen Pal.

  3. Anonymous12:57 AM

    I like to live in the present because no matter how much we try to preserve the past - we lose some of it & no matter how hard we 'prepare' for the 'inevitable' 'end of the world' we will always move on & transition into another era in our own organic way.....but I would question how much could survive an Atomic war(jk), Natural disasters & an OVERALL change in the Earth's climate. ...... In my mind (3,000 years from now) people would have long become accustomed to being Nomads & Hunter Gathers again. So, who needs a computer then? And, who knows?! Maybe modern technology will hurry up and clone all those extinct animals, repopulate the world before some 'disaster' wipes out the means to do so again.......That just means we'll have mastodons to hunt in the future Yo ; ) !!!!!!!!!!