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History According to the ‘Net

I just read an opinion in the Guardian titled We’re In Danger of Losing Our Memories, by Lynne Brindley, the chief executive of the British Library. This is something I’ve considered before, but first, a pertinent quote:

“At the exact moment Barack Obama was inaugurated, all traces of President Bush vanished from the White House website, replaced by images of and speeches by his successor. Attached to the website had been a booklet entitled 100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration – they may never know them now. When the website changed, the link was broken and the booklet became unavailable.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics was the first truly online games with more 150 websites, but these sites disappeared overnight at the end of the games and the only record is held by the National Library of Australia.

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. Historians and citizens of the future will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century.

…People often assume that commercial organisations such as Google are collecting and archiving this kind of material – they are not. The task of capturing our online intellectual heritage and preserving it for the long term falls, quite rightly, to the same libraries and archives that have over centuries systematically collected books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings and which remain available in perpetuity, thanks to these institutions.”

Brindley isn’t the only one concerned about the potential disappearance of history. Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, created the Wayback Machine with this very idea in mind so that you can view a website’s various changes in the past (at least as far back as 1996). By the way, I listened (just yesterday) to an interview with Brewster Kahle on the CBC radio audiocast of the Spark, which is worth checking out in light of this question of the preservation of online history. But the issue Brindley mentions still stands for all that info that gets deleted or removed in between indexings by the archive.

This is why I appreciate my brothers and sisters at the Long Now Foundation, who hope to “provide counterpoint to today’s ‘faster/cheaper’ mind set and promote ‘slower/better’ thinking” by “creatively foster(ing) responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.” Clearly, they’re not trying to do this only through a website…

Can you even imagine 10,000 years into the future? I can’t even envision 1 year into the future given how quickly we experience change these days! (On that note, check out Long Bets, a website which archives predictions and their eventual outcomes in order to increase accountability toward future-thinking. You’ll see that many predictions end up being quite wrong.)

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