The Digital Preservation Coalition recently released its 2019 list of “digitally endangered species,” that is, digital content that could eventually vanish and be lost forever.
The list includes all kinds of things that we take for granted. Email, photos, videos, contracts, research papers, government records, video games, and smartphone apps are just a few examples.
Our dependence on proprietary platforms, combined with poor storage habits and reliance on technologies that are bound to become obsolete make this a serious problem that needs to be addressed, according to the UK-based nonprofit.
The bottom line is: The old adage that anything posted to the Internet will last forever is a myth. And digital storage devices (hard drives, USB sticks, memory cards, and the like) have limited life spans. If you don’t back them up regularly, you can kiss your data goodbye.
Email and social media networks aren’t the answer, either. Remember Friendster? If you were one of the millions who signed up for that social networking service in the early 2000s, you probably uploaded photos to the site, wrote a few blog posts, and penned some glowing testimonials about your friends. But unless you downloaded your data from Friendster, saved screenshots, or printed everything out, there’s a good chance that content is gone for good. The Digital Preservation Coalition warns that content uploaded to popular online services such as Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, and YouTube could share a similar fate.
When it comes to preserving information, "relying on online platforms is a real problem,” said Andrew Sellars, the director of the BU/MIT Technology Law Clinic. How things are saved on those platforms is "left to the whims of corporations,” which can come and go, he said. “They aren’t guaranteed to exist 20 to 25 years from now.”
These companies dictate the terms of what happens to your digital content. Do you keep any special photos or documents in your e-mail account? Things of sentimental value that you’d want to pass on to future generations after you’re gone? If you don’t plan ahead, it could all disappear after you die.
Sellars says he’s confident that digital content generated by major public figures (e.g. President Trump’s tweets) will be kept for future generations to see, but glimpses of day-to-day life, from everyday people — “the stuff people aren’t thinking to preserve” — may not.
Unlike our ancestors, who left us with hard copies of handwritten letters and photographs, we won’t be leaving our descendants with much of a paper trail. And what happens if our digital information becomes inaccessible? What if the files are corrupted, or if no software exists to read them?
Vint Cerf, a web pioneer who’s now vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, has publicly voiced his concerns about this and even suggested the possibility of the 21st century becoming “an informational black hole.” (He also recommends creating physical copies of photos you want to keep. “Print them out, literally,” he said.)
Of course, there are many efforts underway to save digital content. Just ask any librarian or archivist.
The Internet Archive has been at this for a while. The website serves as an online depository for audio, video, books, and software, and its Wayback Machine has been capturing snapshots of websites since 1996. And then there’s the Archive Team, a volunteer group led by computer historian Jason Scott that bills itself as “a loose collective of rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths dedicated to saving our digital heritage.” (When Friendster announced its plan to delete user content in 2011, Scott and members of the Archive Team scrambled into action and rescued as much data as they could.)
But we can’t preserve everything, notes Azer Bestavros, a professor of computer science and founding director of the Hariri Institute for Computing at Boston University. Preserving digital material raises ethical and legal questions. There are copyright and privacy issues to consider.
“The reality that we cannot preserve every digital bit also begs the question of how we decide what is worth preserving,” said Bestavros. “Who can we trust to make that call? How do we make sure that such decisions do not give us the digital equivalent of ‘history is written by victors?' ”
Those are questions worth pondering, indeed. And that’s the point of the “digitally endangered species” list — to get people thinking about the issue and raise awareness of the importance of preserving digital materials.
“Inaction is the real threat,” said William Kilbride, the executive director of the Digital Preservation Coalition. “Will there be a dark age? Almost certainly entire companies, institutions, and families will lose data because they didn’t (or were unable to) take steps, and a reasonable number of these will fail as a result. There are lots of examples of that already.”