Digital permanence

Computers run on layers and layers of abstraction. These layers change and evolve and decay.

For this reason, although you’re reading this on a device thousands (millions?) of times more powerful than any computer of the 90’s, you can’t play your childhood’s computer games on it.

You’d need emulators and other software to make your current computer think it is a much older machine, with corresponding settings and hardware.

Ironically enough (although it makes sense, after a deeper reflection), digital information rots faster than physical information. Tomes written by monks, centuries ago, will probably age better than your notes on that notion account.

This leaves us with a problem to solve: all of our lives will be digitized, for ever. But they will be digitized on different services, apps, cloud hosting providers, etc. They will be spread out and dependent on faraway systems. These systems need maintaining. And at some point, all of them will fail. Sometimes for ever.

If, like me, you’d like to keep your notes (bear in mind, this isn’t just about notes like this you’re reading), the issue of Digital permanence should be on your mind.

Digital permanence can’t be fully untangled from capitalism and the incentive structures around the creation, maintenance and disappearance of specific technologies. Which is a fascinating layer of this challenge.

Perhaps your favorite software makes it very simple to do certain things, but it is quite likely that it does so as a trade-off. A trade-off between practicality in exchange for being locked in a certain way of doing things. When the tools and interfaces that allow you to do those things are removed, you can find yourself without the content of your digital possessions.

Think about movies or music streaming. You probably don’t own many CDs or DVDs. It is almost certain that you depend on other companies to make these things available to you, via their apps and portals.

How could you guarantee that your children will be able to watch some old-time classic that was absolutely foundational to who you are today?