Stephen Dowling, writing for the BBC, has an article about the transient nature of the Internet and how so much of what was posted in the first ten years just isn’t there anymore.
If Brewster Kahle hadn’t set up the Internet Archive and started saving things – without waiting for anyone’s permission – we’d have lost everything.
. . .
“It’s not only the early material. Most of the internet is not being stored,” he says.
“The Internet Archive first started archives pages in 1996. That’s five years after the first webpages were set up. There’s nothing from that era that was ever copied from the live web.” Even the first web page set up in 1991 no longer exists; the page you can view on the World Wide Web Consortium is a copy made a year later.
The article also mentions the shift from tangible media to electronic media in terms of what we have in our private collections — email and pictures and whatnot. Almost none of that is going to be gathered by archivists. It notes that the British Archives, for example, has collected a lot of letters between people. MySpace recently lost years of music and photos. Google Plus is gone.
This isn’t entirely new or different. There are huge gaps in historical records, and I imagine future historians are going to have a wealth of material regardless of how much we lose. In the early days of television, they didn’t necessarily keep tapes of the broadcasts. But, I was put in mind of Harold Innis’ Empire and Communications. I’ve only read pieces of it, so take my descriptions and Wikipedia pastings with a grain of salt.
[He] argued that the “bias” of each medium either toward space or toward time helps determine the nature of the civilization in which that medium dominates. “Media that emphasize time are those that are durable in character such as parchment, clay and stone,” he writes in his introduction. These media tend to favour decentralization. “Media that emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character, such as papyrus and paper.” These media generally favour large, centralized administrations. Innis believed that to persist in time and to occupy space, empires needed to strike a balance between time-biased and space-biased media.
What we have now in electronic communications do not emphasize time. With the Internet, we have an ephemeral media that almost entirely negates space. “While time-biased media favour stability, community, tradition and religion, space-biased media facilitate rapid change, materialism, secularism and empire. . . . [S]ocieties that depend on space-biased media . . . tend to favour abstract thought and control over space. They have little regard for tradition and when compared with oral societies, their ways of thinking are apt to be more rational, linear and impersonal.”
I’m not sure I entirely buy Innis’ theories, but he was a smart guy, so there is probably something to this. Our preferred communications are going to shape our culture and politics. If Innis is right, we’ll tend toward more rapidly changing, materialistic, secular society governed in a centralized, imperial manner. Right now, it feels as if things are splintering, not centralizing. But, that could be the old power structures giving way before centralized structures develop. Or maybe it’s all a bunch of hooey and things will stay more or less the same.