The digital attic has begun collecting and storing scraps of our lives — forever
This column appeared in the June 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review. For a more thorough look at this issue, see my article in Salon (with errant formatting given that they’ve switched publishing systems).
Gigabytes have been written about the digital revolution, but little attention has been paid to one of its most potentially profound social changes: The Internet doesn’t forget. Memories fade, but electronic archives are turning fleeting snapshots of our past lives into permanent records that may follow us forever.
And that has enormous consequences for us as communicators, journalists and citizens.
The common perception is that the Web is a fragile creature filled with dead links, “404 Not Found” error messages, hasty e-mails and other transient digital debris. Indeed, leading figures on the Net have bemoaned the wholesale loss of the Web’s early years, such as many of the political sites devoted to the ’96 election.
But efforts are under way to change all that. Brewster Kahle of San Francisco, inventor of several Internet search engines, is trying to collect, store and catalog the entire World Wide Web and all 33,000 Usenet newsgroups. Kahle’s nonprofit Internet Archive and more recent Alexa project are out to become the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria: the repository of all the world’s public digital information. To date he’s copied and stored some 8 trillion bytes of words, images and sounds (compared to 20 trillion in the Library of Congress).