On Transience and Permanence

I’m a bit of a digital pack rat. I’ve got emails from all the way back to 1998 — not all of the email I’ve ever sent, but pretty close to it.

I’ve got the Excel spreadsheet Greta and I used to send out wedding invitations and thank-you notes in 1989. I’ve got a testimonial I sent to my grandma when my grandpa died. I’ve got all the books I’ve ever written.

But I still didn’t manage to keep everything. My B.A. thesis somehow didn’t make the transition from an 800K floppy disk to hard drive. I’ve got a paper copy, but that’s not the same thing. My earlier papers, composed on a Commodore 64, are digitally lost forever.

And, of course, not all these things can actually be read by my current computer. That Excel file from 1989 can’t be deciphered by any app I have. Most of the books are in Quark xPress format, and while I have a Quark 4 CD-ROM, I don’t have a computer that runs Mac OS 9 to install it on. The emails I sent from 1998 to about 2001 are, for some reason, all dated May 5, 2004.

One of the reasons I became a writer was out of a desire to create something permanent, or at least something that would last longer than my own life. Yet stuff I created less than ten years ago is now unreadable by my computer.

My dot-matrix printouts of English essays from 1985, on the other hand, are quite legible in the hanging folder they’ve now sat in for 25 years.

There’s some pretty old stuff available online these days. You can find the complete works of Edmund Spenser, for example, at several different sites listed here. But the searchable complete text, a really cool site when it was created in the 1990s and linked from the site, apparently no longer works.

All of this makes me wonder: If I want to make something that will last, is digital technology really the way to do it? Should I be blogging, or should I be writing in a more durable medium? And what medium would that be? The printed newspaper, magazine, and even book industries don’t seem to be doing very well of late.

Perhaps the web will stand the test of time and my blogging won’t be lost anytime soon. I kind of doubt it, though. The problems with spammers and hackers aside, I’m just not sure that the MySQL database that serves as the backend for this blog is going to be functional/compatible with server hardware, say, two decades from now.

Sites like Twitter are so transient that it’s difficult to find anything there that’s over a week old. Even assuming its database is technically capable of surviving, the site could be sold, go bankrupt, get hacked, or crash due to some unforeseen glitch.

And of course, as Shelley reminds us, even the strongest stone monuments will eventually crumble:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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4 Responses to On Transience and Permanence

  1. Mark Sample says:

    I’ve got you beat. My oldest piece of archived email dates from Tuesday, September 1, 1992. 8:53pm. I will spare you the details, but I worked in a university computer lab at the time, and I make all sorts of (dated) gratuitous references to Ross Perot and the NeXT.

    My late and distinguished colleague Roy Rosenzweig wrote eloquently about the need to preserve the digital past (he was a historian). Take a look at his essay Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.

  2. Freiddie says:

    There’s such a thing as Excel in 1989??

  3. dave says:

    Freiddie:

    Yep. It came out in 1985 — one of the first Mac applications. In fact it came out for the Mac before the PC. Windows didn’t even exist at that point. PC users used Lotus 1-2-3 back then.

    Mark:

    I’m not sure I *had* email back in 1992, being an ordinary citizen and not a university type. At some point we got AOL and I shared an account with Greta (who had email in grad school). But all those emails are lost.

  4. David Boraks says:

    Geez, I worry about this all the time, not with what’s stored on my PC, but on my writing archived on the network. Now we’ve got databases full of words, plus audio and video we’ve created. It works today. What about in two years or five years? And what if the servers are turned off for business reasons? I worked for a startup online business news service in 2000 called LocalBusiness.com. I wrote four stories a day for 9 months. It’s all lost – when the dot-com went bust, the plug was pulled on the database. I hope someone’s working on this …

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