The Internet and the Throwaway Society

I sometimes worry that our increasingly digital culture—as handy as it is in many ways—is also a reflection of our “throwaway” mentality. We are not thinking enough of the long term.

As a student of ancient cultures, I became acutely aware of how hard it is to preserve cultural assets over time. For example, the relatively few books that have survived from ancient times have all come down to us in scraps and fragments—even the Bible—and have been painfully reconstructed by innumerable scholars.

We are currently flooded with information of all kinds, and there seems to be such a wealth of media and storage mechanisms that it’s hard to image all this information not lasting forever. But it’s quite possible that even less of it will survive into the future than has survived from ancient times.

Digital files of all kinds—from documents and digital photos to books and blockbuster movies—are quite fragile. Anyone with a few gray hairs probably has old floppy disks, cassette tapes or VHS tapes gathering dust in the basement that can’t easily be accessed any more. Or old file formats stored on disks that the latest computers can’t read any more. And think of all those old photos and movies on film that may be hard to access in the near future.

I was listening to a recent episode of The Web Ahead, in which Jenn Symmonds interviews Jason Scott of the Internet Archive. This topic of preserving digital data is the main theme. In the interview, Scott says—

All of those things with the online world, are conspiring to make the chances that we can get information as fast and quickly as we ever could, in the history of the world, and we have the capability to lose it with no chance of recovery, even better.

Think of the websites we are building. Are they not the ultimate throwaway product? They are built for today with little, if any, thought for the future. Think of all the great technologies we are using to build sites—the CMSes, the frameworks, the various tools … all of which have a relatively short shelf life. And what then? Will there be anything left in a few years? And does it even matter? I recommend you listen to the podcast I linked to above (or read the transcript).

So, what are you guys doing about preserving the digital things that are important to you? What about your important files, your photos, your documents, your website content? Do you have a plan?


This website never fails to blow my mind as it has stuff i did 10 years ago, much of which in working order.

I guess a question could be is any of the stuff we are doing actually important? does it matter in a thousand years if a website on socks or funny looking cats ever existed?

Maybe not an answer to the question posed but as much as i work on the internet and think it has some benefits i also can see numerous downsides to it’s unceasing being. Whilst we have unparallelled access to information we often have little to no understanding of how it was achieved or what we should do with it. In the ‘good old’ days people were taught how to think and understand, they were taught the rules so they could formulate ideas and information. Modern schooling seems to much more focused on learning facts/information. People often cannot link 2 separate pieces of information together with no obvious connection as they aren’t able to take the information they know and apply it in a different way and build/create something new. It is merely separate information to them, neatly stored on the web for instant access. It also means ow i can’t put the word ‘apparently’ in front of a sentence and get away with making up a fact as someone will google it within seconds and tell me i’m wrong :slight_smile:

Online shopping has pretty much killed the highstreet shops. To me the argument that it creates good competition doesn’t seem to be very accurate, all it seems to do is put local businesses out of business and build huge multinational companies that manage somehow not to pay tax in the appropriate countries, whilst bored workers wander round vast warehouses collecting the plastic rubbish we all need so much.

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

also i don’t need to see photos of what you had for dinner on facebook… go play outside.

I totally agree that there are petabytes of data out there that are not worth preserving, but we are in danger of losing the good stuff, too. I’d rather see a service like the Internet Archive focus on storing the best of what we produce—although that’s a contentious issue in itself. Think of the trashy graffiti on the walls of Pompeii: it might have been considered nonsense in its day, or even criminal defacing of buildings … yet now it’s a treasured record of daily life in Roman times.

I also don’t like the idea of relying on the Internet Archive to look after everything for us. And it won’t. It won’t store our photos for us and make sure they survive for future generations. I’m currently going through my digital photos and selecting just a small number from each year that are really worth keeping. I’m not sure I’d want thousands of pictures of my grandparents—especially not when they are all pretty much the same.


It is quite worrying seeing this in the latest generation’s mentality which is essentially an egotistical and disposable culture.

Sometimes I wonder how humans thousands of years from now will be able to understand our culture and the way we lived. It’s telling that what we know of ancient civilisations is mainly because of etchings in stone - we have very little of this in modern times.


Yes, as mentioned rather starkly in the podcast I linked to, there’s usually at least an indent in the ground—or some other evidence, however slight—of what existed in the past, whereas digital content leaves absolutely no trace once it’s gone.

yeah I guess you are indeed correct. It is certainly a hard job to decide what is and what isn’t important. In the same way that we make a lot of assumptions on ancient cultures based on what is left/we find (which are often wrong and change when we find more findings). Also how accurate is any of the ancient writings as it was often written decades after the event and by the winners of whatever war happened to be going on.

Even working out what storage media is pretty hard. If you keep it digital you assume the future will be able to read it and that it will not be corrupt by the time it gets there. If you print photos then the paper will probably degrade. I did read an article once that said harddrives are better for long term storage than CDs as they don’t degrade as fast but then you only need a magnetic field to destroy the harddrive and it assumes the same connections will make sense in years to come. Do i even have IDE connections anymore?

I always enjoy the bits of futurama when they have exhibits of 20th century stuff and make up how or what the item was used for (obviously being totally wrong).

a hard question with even harder answers.

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Even if we find a few file formats that last longer than average, will there be machines to read them in the future? That seems pretty unlikely. So preservation ultimately depends on copying / transcribing etc. … just as with the ancient texts. But there is so much data around now—so many books, films, pictures etc.—that it’s not realistic to keep copying / transforming it all to new formats. And we are assuming that machines themselves will stand the test of time—that technology will continue to advance. But who knows? This technological phase of history could easily pass, just like most other things pass.

I don’t know, this was planned to last 40000 years for life forms unknown

I thought I heard recently that there was an error in the encoding of that Voyager record. Anyhow, I guess that record is a good example of what’s possible in terms of long-time storage / encoding.

(It always makes me sad when I hear that the Voyager record was designed in such a way that any intelligent life out there would be able to understand it. I don’t think I’d understand it. :frowning: )

This is a great talk by Jeremy Keith about the open web and preserving it for the future:

My favorite quote:

The dinosaurs died out because they didn’t have a space program.

Nope, no plan here. I suspect when I’m dead and gone, nobody will be interested anyway. I still have massive amounts of photos from my parents ( who are now dead and gone.) …gotta sort through those someday. Or maybe not.

I think it’s more important to consider the impact you leave today (which ripples into the future), than any evidence of it in the future. Relish in your personal butterfly effect, not the artifacts you leave behind for very few people to see.

geeze that might be the deepest thing I’ve ever written lol

In the video I linked to above, there’s a poignant story of a woman whose husband died, leaving all his poems sitting on his GeoCities site. When it suddenly disappeared, she was devastated.

Definitely! But there’s always room for multiple levels of importance. :wink:

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Sorry, I always run out of time before I get on here to read at night so didn’t have time to view the video. But I don’t have to see any video to realize how devastating that would be. That’s so sad. And actually if I dropped dead tomorrow, I suspect my husband would be a total mess. So… point taken

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