Is Our Future History Safe Within the Web?

By January 30, 2009

A problem with the Internet as historical document is that it lacks physicality. Unlike Sumerian tablets or medieval codices, there is the distinct possibility that the abstracted form Web information takes could lead to a future loss of history or facilitate its revision. Information today is ephemeral, and is in danger of disappearing to the future. In a recent Observer article, Lynne Brindley, head of the British Library, says that changes in technology and disappearing websites are the main reason for a historical "black hole" the Web is creating. "Historians of the future, citizens of the future, will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century," says Brindley.

As new technology renders the old obsolete again and again (the closest thing to the Hegelian dialectic we have?), documents become inaccessible and lost. When a technology is rendered obsolete, the information it contains may die with it.

Who has not lost things in the space between floppy disks and flash drives?

Brindley also points to information deleted on websites, during political regime changes, for example. When Obama became president, George Bush disappeared from the White House's website, and documents pertaining to him were struck from cyberspace.

She cites the massive disappearance of Sydney Olympic websites after the Games were done as another example of the "black hole."

"If websites continue to disappear in the same way as those on President Bush and the Sydney Olympics - perhaps exacerbated by the current economic climate that is killing companies - the memory of the nation disappears too."

On the other hand, maybe all the information on the Internet will stick, and in a thousand years academic schools will argue furiously over our tweets and facebook updates as if they were Latin epigrams.

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