Tech

The Digital Fog

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 1:25 PM EST

Dan Gillmor:

Yahoo has decided to close its Web bookmarking service, Delicious, a move that is sparking angst to outrage around the intertubes. One result is a frenzied search for a new social bookmarking service to replace what many people, including me, have used over the years to stockpile and organize links to online material we've found interesting.

....But the most important result may ultimately be what this move, among others, does for public understanding of the role of Internet service providers of all kinds....We put our data — our websites, photos, bookmarks, email and more — on their sites. But they can, and do, change their terms of service at will, doing what they please with what we've put on their servers. And sometimes they just shut down the services they've been providing. They may do it for good reasons, or absurd ones. It doesn't matter. The point is, they can.

This is true. At the same time, it's nothing all that new. My first word processing was done in Scripsit on a TRS-80. Then in MASS-11 on a VAX 750. Then in Ami Pro under Windows 3.1. Then in Word. Then in Blogspot. Then in Movable Type at the Washington Monthly. Now in Drupal at Mother Jones. Everything I wrote on Blogspot is already gone, and it's true that everything I wrote at the Monthly and currently write at MoJo could easily disappear if either of those magazines goes bust. But guess what? Most of the older stuff is gone forever too even though it never touched the internet. The programs disappeared, the data formats disappeared, and the physical formats became obsolete. You can't buy Ami Pro or 5¼-inch floppy disks anymore. This is something that data retention experts have wrestled with for decades. Archival storage is nearly impossible in an era where both physical media and digital formats change relentlessly.

So yes, be careful. Backup your data. Don't trust the cloud for everything. But every time we do anything on our computers, we're trusting that the programs we use will be around for a while. Sometimes that bet pays off, sometimes it doesn't. I have a Civil War diary written by my great-grandfather in 1863, and it's still extremely legible and accessible. But what are the odds that a single word I've ever written will still be accessible in the year 2160? Aside from the stuff on paper, pretty slim, I'll bet.