Archiving the present

Fairwell then, the print version of the Indy. The victim of a digital culture (which we’re not really in to the extent people think, but I’ll come to that in a moment), the last national newspaper to be forged in the UK has decided to stop printing things on dead trees and will try to generate money through clickbait and funny cat videos. A lot of people will lose a source of income or see their payment rates drop through the floor, being based on clickthroughs and not wordcount. It is another shift away from “proper” journalism and is more like the meta-journalism we see a lot of, where people aren’t sent out to research and report on stories, but do it all from their desk, trusting their online sources far more than they should do and risking being labelled as “churnalists” regurgitating press releases and marketing spaff as truth with a capital T.

I’m sad to see it go as the Indy was an ok paper, but what is worrying me more than the lack of rigorous journoism is; are we at the start of a trend for news archives to go entirely digital? Because if we are, our cultural effectiveness and place in history is about to be plunged into a new Dark Ages, if we’re not in it already.

There’s a couple of points I’d like to make.

1. Not everybody is online. In fact, despite surveys saying that 90% of the population is glued to a smartphone for at least 2 hours a week, or whatever made up fact I feel like throwing in, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there is a huge digital disenfranchisement going on. Although 90% of the UK has access to the internet considerably fewer than that actually use it. If you take out all the ones who only use their internet access for facebook and football, it’s even fewer. If you take out everybody who only uses it for VoD services it drops right down. Take out everybody who bought a smartphone because it was on a cheap contract and only uses it for voice calls, and everybody who got the internet thrown in for very little with their BT or Sky subscriptions but don’t actually plug a laptop into it. All these people – who quite often buy newspapers and watch broadcast news – are losing information sources. These people are being separated from their council services – they don’t know about changes to bin days, for example – and are confused by the changes to Road Fund Licensing because nobody sent them a letter. They’re getting what culture they can, and need, through physical, real life interaction with things – like books and opera and theatre and paintings. As culture goes increasingly digital the people who don’t use, or know about it because they’re not already there will be losing out.

2. Also, there is an assumption that “everybody is on the internet and they’ll find out about it there” except ‘the internet’ – whatever that is – is different for everybody, and it’s huge. Making that assumption is dangerous and insulting. It’s like putting a single flyer on a tree in the middle of a forest that covers most of the planet and is full of great big chuffing spiders who aren’t averse to rewriting the flyer.

3. Aside from that, as culture goes digital we’re entrusting stuff like instruction booklets and building plans and national defence strategy and diaries and movies and weather data and documentaries and social history books and fiction and gardening tips and the ability to make things to digital media. That’s lovely, except it is incredibly fragile. Hard disks pop. Flash media – of course, yes, you can nail it to a tree, drown it in cola, bury it in soft peat for three months and it’ll come up smiling – still has an expiry date not that far into the future. Tapes will be eaten by robots. Cosmic rays can flip bits on platters, for goodness sakes. Data integrity is very, very difficult – and that’s for stuff we use today. Also, it can be changed trivially easily – by hackers, by lawyers, by people who want to rewrite history to make them the hero instead of the evil, disconnected, narcissistic bell ends that we know them to be now, but if the newspaper archives back them up then ‘we can’t get into the who said what to whom game, can we? And the past is in the past, let’s look to the future!’ And so on. Don’t forget format changes, too – as an experiment try opening a Lotus 123 document you created in the ’90s on a modern desktop. Or try opening the plans to your nuclear powered aircraft carrier in a new version of the CAD software that got installed as part of a systemwide upgrade plan.

4. Oh, and let us not forget the future. At some point in the year 3000 some archaeologist is going to be looking at ancient culture, and could well find lots of relatively hardwearing source material from the 1800s right up until 1994. And then the amount and quality of material will decline, as it all went onto hard disks which won’t survive past the end of the decade, let alone another 984 years. I’ve got a USB hard disk that can’t be read by anything made after 2009, for some reason. There are crates of 3.5″ floppy disks in cupboards that will never be looked at again; we have all this media and because it requires effort to look at – unlike, say, a book or a painting – it will never get examined, and this is stuff that’s only 20 years old.

Our modern culture is becoming increasingly temporary and transient, and when we’re long dead and gone, and our civilisation is lying in ruins the easiest stuff to read will be the markers for our cultural legacy. Whatever arises from the ashes of our civilsation will be starting from scratch, just like those who lived between the fall of Rome and the Rennaisance. You know what the future will find? Millions of discarded copies of 50 shades books. In the same way we deride Victorians for their hypocracy we will be mocked as a generation of people who liked poorly-written text about spanking. And maybe something about wizards.

Welcome to the new Dark Ages.

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2 Responses to Archiving the present

  1. thepoliblog says:

    One of the Achilles heels of the online media is that any one site or any one news item becomes lost in a crowd of other items that are in your eye’s or are in your brain’s peripheral vision, even while you are looking at any particular item. There are too many candidates for looking at, so none of them are looked at unless something particular brings one of them to your attention.
    A typical consequence: I do not look at the online version of the newspaper, unless an article in the print edition catches my interest, and seems worth downloading. Another example: a study found that readers remember less from an eBook than from a printed book.

    The other Achilles heel is one that you mention: the extreme difficulty of maintaining the ability to read the rapidly growing stock of preservation-worthy items when the technology for reading them keeps changing, especially since any information stored on some types of media (e.g., magnetic media) fades unless it is re-read frequently enough, and plastic, like glass, slowly deforms. The scholarly societies are tearing their hair about this. And open-access journals with no page charges for authors have no way of paying for the long-term preservation and ‘refreshing’ of their articles.

  2. Pingback: South Leeds Roundup: Awards, archives and all-terrain trikes - South Leeds Life : South Leeds Life

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