Leaving no trail behind

Posted: September 24th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

On a recent review of the VC database I was simply astounded with the amount of dead links in a variety of indexed projects. Worst of all was that some became completely untraceable, possibly gone forever. This was an exasperating moment. VisualComplexity.com, regardless of how insignificant it might seem in the big scheme of things, is still a compact archive of an epoch, showcasing tendencies, methods, discoveries, and fragmented insights into the modus operandi of our contemporary society. For many people searching for those lost projects, VC is not a curated starting point, but a frustrating dead end, leaving them with a slightly bitter taste in their mouth. Sure, some authors could be more organized and concerned with the documentation of their projects, but that still wouldn’t solve the issue. The main drawback we are dealing with is the inherent medium.

At the present time, we have access to countless cuneiform documents, including economic records, letters, and literary works from early Sumerian times, produced over 4,000 years ago. Many of these artifacts are essential to our understanding of the values and practices that shaped this ancient culture. Can we aspire the same longevity for our modern cultural artifacts? Most certainly not. We would be lucky if a tiny percentage of our documents lasted even a fraction of that time scale. We are so infatuated with our digital virtuosity that we are blind to its ephemeral nature. It’s curious how at this stage in civilization, when we are collecting more data like never before, in quantities that would astonish any nineteen-century researcher, we are storing it in one of the most fragile and volatile mediums, if and when we store it at all.

Yes, initiatives such as the Internet Archive are critical, but still remarkably far away from any realistic aspiration. In a captivating article by The Wall Street Journal, journalist Robert Hotz explains how “Scientists who collaborate via email, Google, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are leaving fewer paper trails, while the information technologies that do document their accomplishments can be incomprehensible to other researchers and historians trying to read them.” As we communicate through more and more channels, our trail becomes thinner and thinner. And as time passes by, our chances of recovering precious records become ever so diminute.

Hotz provides an illustrative case on this critical challenge. When the leading evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton died in 2000, the British Library received a pile of his research papers, together with letters, drafts and lab notes. Among these documents were 26 cartons containing “vintage floppy computer disks, reels of 9-track magnetic tape, stacks of 80-column punch cards, optical storage cards and punched paper tapes”, some dating back to the 1960s. In order to extract many of the crucial stored information, “that could illuminate an influential life of science”, researchers at the Library had to arduously assemble a “collection of vintage computers, old tape drives and forensic data-recovery devices in a locked library sub-basement.”

I found this account extremely alarming and unsettling, particularly since it addresses a mere 40 year gap. Forty years! Now imagine the difficult task of historians in 400 years from now. We can do more and we have to. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming a memoryless generation, or even worse, the dark digital age.