Friday, February 26, 2010

Digital black hole

It's been a while since I last wrote about the problem of digital preservation. The paradox is that while we have never had access to so much information there's a great danger that much of it will disappear without a trace. Will future researchers be able to access records of our everyday life? Who preserves all the communication going on in social networks? You may say that much of it isn't worth preserving but often it's precisely the everyday communication that can be most interesting. Who preserves all our photos and videos, especially if the applications that host them, like Flickr or Picasa, go up in smoke one day? Websites are preserved to some extent but the vast majority are not. Seemingly the average website has an average life expectancy of 75 days!

I was reminded of this by an article in The Guardian, Is copyright getting in the way of us preserving our history?, where the author sees copyright legislation as an added barrier to digital preservation. One problem area is that lack of archives for TV and radio productions. Getting permission to make these archives accessible on the net is not easy and without the permission of all parties nothing gets preserved.

"the vast majority of documentary films from the 20th century will be forever buried in a lawyer's thicket inaccessible (legally) because of a set of permissions built into these films at their creation".

Added to this is the fact that digital files deteriorate and must be reformatted regularly. Food for thought if you want to be able to show your family photos and films to your grandchildren. It's impossible to preserve everything but we need to consider carefully what types of net content should be preserved and ensure that it's done so in a format that will be relatively future-proof. I doubt if we'll find a format that is as durable as the papyrus scrolls of ancient Egypt.

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