Thursday, December 16, 2010

The future of digital memory

Here's a sobering bellwether for the state of our immersion in the digital realm, recently pointed out to me by a colleague who's been engaged with the issue for some time: what do we want to happen to our digital legacy after we die? Almost all of us have one, given the extent to which we rely, in one way or another, on digital and online content, so should we care about providing our nearest and dearest with what amounts to a 'digital will'? For some of the questions this raises, you can see Dave Thompson's fascinating FAQ on digital wills here. Undoubtedly, this generation represents a watershed for future memory and history. Given the pace of things, we may well be around long enough to experience its impact.

A recent article by the BBC alludes to the fact that many of us probably wouldn't want our digital lives to be shared out - we might well be more inclined to erase our data than to leave a digital will. Despite the very real consequences of an individual's online actions (think about legal action relating to Twitter feeds, amongst other things), the medium retains the suggestion of anonymity, informality and, consequently, greater personal freedom, but is it something that we would wish to represent our memory?

Of course, in the UK, society itself is online (e-government, e-science, e-learning &c.) so where does this leave the future of our collective memory and the history of our times? The question is so large that I'm going to keep it rhetorical, but I'm particularly interested in how this also feeds into issues surrounding digital preservation in the cultural and public sectors. Some of these have been raised within a recent Discover Magazine blog article discussing a publication examining the long-term storage of e-services in instances where there is a legal obligation to retain the information for a very long time (100 years, in the case of some e-government data). It presents the thesis that there is too much data, and most of it is not safe in the long-term - why not use analogue storage methods in conjunction with digital media and get the best of both worlds?

Perhaps the solution in this context is to save digital data onto lots of microfilm as the authors suggest, but it highlights the fact that the digital drive has never been coupled with sustainability. In memory institutions, like libraries and museums, the move towards digital is mostly extremely expensive, and represents a major investment, despite the risks. Digital content represents one of the best leverage tools available to cultural heritage institutions at present by prioritising user access, which equates to institutional relevance and compatibility with current information demands. Sustainability is really a bonus that everyone wants to achieve, planning as best they can, but long-term storage is indeed a mighty complex problem and a conversation that will endure.

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