Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Losing Our Digital Selves

Everything I wrote in high school, college, and graduate school lies hidden somewhere in this room.

The hiddenness is two-fold: physical and digital. I'm not sure of the actual location of the external hard drive on which my papers and essays are stored. But with a little effort I would undoubtedly find it. More significant—more confounding—than the tangible and physical hiding place of the hard drive is the inaccessibility of its data.

A year or so ago I bought a new less-old used laptop from my Dad. It wasn't until after I gave away my old laptop to one of his friends that I realized my new laptop lacks the outdated firewire hookup required to plug in my old hard drive.

Trapezoid-on-rectangle peg, meet rectangular hole.

So now this once-very-expensive hard drive now has all the functionality of a paperweight for me. Of course, I should still be able to extract my data from the hard drive by borrowing someone's older laptop. But I'm pretty good at procrastinating—how long before my hard drive becomes the floppy disk of bling?

I mostly don't think about the hard drive at all—how often do you think about things you wrote in a previous life? But recently I've had occasion to remember that hard drive, to feel the rise of subtle stomach-stirring panic at the thought of losing it all.

A couple weeks ago our President's comments on ISIS gave me occasion to think about the Spanish Inquisition, and I remembered that I have no access to relevant grad work. Then yesterday The Hedgehog Review posted a short essay by B.D. McClay on the odd, contradictory effects of digitization. McClay notes that much contemporary handwringing about our social-media selves focuses on the permanence of our digital words and deeds—"the idea that, for instance, an unkind or embarrassing action could linger on and haunt us long beyond any reasonable amount of time."

As I teacher, I do worry for my students. Every so often—usually when I'm trying to find out the score of a basketball or soccer game—I stumble across the world of high school Twitter. It is a dark place, friends—inane at its best, horrifying at its worst. This is not to suggest that "back in my day" kids were wiser or purer, but there is a difference between spoken stupidity and posting your foolishness on public social media.

But as a history teacher, I worry more about the transience of our information. McClay points out that, while the Internet and the digital world may indeed retain things we would rather see disappear, it also has great potential to swallow wholesale things we expect to last. I once used Google Reader as a digital filing cabinet of sorts. When Google regrettably shut down Reader a few years ago, I dutifully downloaded my archive, which lies untouched and unreadable on this laptop... or is it in the hard drive?

The jumping off point for McClay's essay is a speech from a Google vice president warning that our obsessive digitization might actually destroy rather than prolong all our records. This is not a new thought. As McClay notes, novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker has been protesting against the digitization and destruction of archived newspapers for nearly two decades. But to hear it from Internet nobility, from a prince of the digital empire, is a bit jarring.

A few years ago, when I was still in graduate school, I started writing for The Sad Bear ("Correspondence between nerds. Everything from journalism and philosophy to rock n' roll and maps. Especially maps."). In my inaugural essay, I reflected on the differences between the work of early modern and late modern historians, and I ventured some thoughts about what future historians might wrestle with as they try to read our age:
Early modern historians wrestle with a paucity of evidence and generally end up trying to say quite a bit with very little to go on. Historians of the 20th-century have the opposite problem. By many measures—not necessarily all—the amount of potential historical evidence created today outpaces that of entire centuries only a few hundred years ago. I think constantly about what kind of evidence we're leaving behind of ourselves, and how it will be interpreted by later cultures. 
How much, I wonder, will survive and in what form? Though I'm no sign-waving apocalypticist, I don't find the total collapse of our civilization an impossibility. It's conceivable that the digital world we've constructed could be permanently and irrevocably lost. When I entertain such thoughts, I find suddenly terrifying our digitizing of everything. In this potential future, some historian will no doubt pen eloquent lines about our Eternal-Sunshine-esque erasure of worlds, our deliberate and orderly destruction of the evidence of our existence.
The Sad Bear fell into disuse and decrepitude not long after I started writing there—I'm not sure what conclusions should be drawn from this, uh, correlation. It's all but dead now. There are still nine of us listed as contributors, but nothing was posted there in the entirety of 2014. Perhaps it will be revived at some future date, though that seems doubtful. But it, like this blog, will live on until Google decides to shut down Blogger like it eliminated Reader—or until Google itself folds.

But if I want permanent access to my writing from The Sad Bear or to this blog—and if I want to be able to read my old academic work—I'm going to have to make intentional and indeed perpetual efforts. McClay suggests that we should be far less confident in the permanence of our digital records—and more intentional in preserving what matters:
...for those of us archiving things of our own that are merely important to us, Cerf’s comments come as a reminder that preservation can’t simply be left to chance or to a technological infrastructure that we trust too much... What we really desire to bring with us into the future, we will have to bring on purpose; the things we wish to remember, we are going to have to choose.

Some of my essays and papers are actually veiled in a third layer of hiddenness. In high school, I wrote using whatever word processing program Apple had going back in the early 2000s—"Apple Works" or "Apple Word" or something. Even before I lost access to my hard drive, I lost the ability to open or read those essays.

They're still sitting inscrutably encoded on an inaccessible hard drive gathering dust somewhere in this room.