Digital Breadcrumbs: The Legacy We Leave Behind
“Dead tree” newspapers and books may seem like the dinosaurs of the digital age, but there’s a lot to be said in favor of tangible historical records in an era of hacking and hard drive crashes. While Grandma’s diary may have been passed down through the generations, your personal and corporate social content is indexed by Google’s cache of destiny within seconds of clicking “Publish.”
You may not think twice before tweeting about eating that ham sandwich, but future generations will be able to find that information with a few keyboard strokes. This article will be available for centuries after my grandchildren’s grandchildren settle into their moon colony. And that’s not exactly science fiction.
“In the 20th century it was all about miniaturization; storing as much information in as little space as possible,” says Matt Novak, blogger at Smithsonian Magazine and columnist for BBC Future. “In 1911, Edison predicted that a hundred years into the future we’d have books printed on leaves of nickel which would allow you to print the Encyclopedia Britannica in a single book.”
They don’t use nickel leaves, but in 2000 the Library of Congress established a pilot project to collect and preserve websites. Today it’s a treasure trove of historical megabytes – my favorites being the Presidential and mid-term election archives from 2000-2008 and the 2,313 sites indexed from 9/11.
In 1996, the nonprofit Internet Archive launched the Wayback Machine, a service that archives web pages and lets users see their changes over time. Today it stores 150 billion web pages dating from 1996 to a few months ago. These archival efforts mean content on the web will live in perpetuity. Check out Verizon.com from June 2000, featuring rough HTML and a pronunciation guide (vurr-EYE-zon).
Even your business or personal social profiles may last forever. Twitter offered its entire archive of public tweets to the Library of Congress in 2012, and Facebook includes an option for friends and family to preserve the profiles of deceased users.
But Novak says all of this data-hoarding may not be healthy in the long-term. “The pitfalls of documenting and retaining every bit of communication is that as a society we [may] very well develop hyperthymesia—the incredibly rare condition where people remember everything that’s ever happened to them, right down to the smallest detail,” he says. “I think there’s an evolutionary reason humans forget things. Remembering everything seems like my own personal version of hell. Imagine every time you said something embarrassing or a girl broke your heart – and living it all over again. The Library of Congress’ social media archive will be a boon for future historians, but it could very well lead us down a dangerous path.”
The implications of digital longevity for business and private life are not yet determined, but the ease of storing everything online is only increasing. An archived story from StarTribune.com in early 1997 predicted the trend with striking accuracy: “You will die, but your computer image can live on.”