Notes on Media

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Just another weblog. Lasse Bo Timmermann.

Digital Archives

If one looks at the Internet and its increasing use as an environment of communication, social interaction and writing an often heard claim is that whatever is put on the Internet will be there forever. The Internet does not forget. The usual assumption is that with storing all our e-mails, having facebook profiles, twitter and weblogs the history of persons or institutions will soon be available in machine readable formats, ready to be recalled at any moment and in a detail never seen before. Stefan Heidenreich describes this in a recent episode of the medienradio podcast as a point in time where we will ascend from a ‘dark era’. Heidenreich’s argument is that 20 Years from now we will be able to look back in time on the basis of our digital biographies to a certain point between 2000 and 2005 at which our history is obscured or dark simply because there is no data. I got a similar idea from a recent lecture of my digital methods seminar. The digital methods intiative is researching, among other things, the history ob websites with the Internet archive. While this kind of research has its own limitations (e.g. with websites extensivle using JavaScript or Flash) the research posibilities seem to increase with growing archives. The above approaches and common ideas about the Internet as an archive thus generally expect an increasing availability of data. The issues of studying history with the Internet rather lies in privacy issues than somewhere else. A recent post by Manuel Lima on the visual complexity blog, however, provides a striking viewpoint on this topic. He refers to an article by Robert Lee Hotz in which he argues that

“Scientists who collaborate via email, Google, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are leaving fewer paper trails, while the information technologies that do document their accomplishments can be incomprehensible to other researchers and historians trying to read them.”

Lima writes that the more channels we are using to communicate the smaller the trails we are leaving behind get. New platforms, networks and formats come along daily. The important question is to what extend we will be able to access the data we collect in lets say 20 or 200 years from now. Paper trails have been a pretty save form of archiving even for thousands of years – although time consuming. Opposed to that, the data stored on floppy disks requires a significant effort to be restored only 15 years from the time in which it was the dominant storage media for data. So, will we still use e-mail in 50 years? Will facebook be around in 10 years? The larger question is whether the predictions of a future in which all our memories a available with the click on a button are right. Are we at the verge of entering a time of almost infinite recollection, as Stefan Heidenreich puts it, or rather facing a memoryless generation of what Manuel Lima calls the dark digital age?

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Filed under: Digital Methods, Future, Internet, Memory, University

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