Without A Paper Trail


James Panero puts the digital age in the context of other information revolutions, arguing that lamenting the rise of the Internet "mimics the complaints of those Renaissance elites who favored manuscripts and turned their noses up at middle-class print culture." His biggest hesitation? Reliable archives:

[A] great challenge still exists in the way the Internet records and stores information. A published book is a fixed and polished record of a moment in time. The Internet always operates in the present. Aside from web portals like the “Wayback Machine,” which can provide historical snapshots of webpages, the Internet has no past. With “time stamps” and footnoted “corrections,” web culture has attempted to import the rules of fixed publication, but the Internet still treats all information the same. Any information on the Internet can be updated, changed, or erased at any moment. On the plus side, the mutable quality of Internet-based information has permitted the rise of great user-maintained databases such as Wikipedia. In this way the Internet mimics scribal culture more than print culture: New readers add new insights, and the information the Internet contains is forever evolving.

On the downside, Internet-based information is infinitely more fugitive than printed matter. In order to eliminate the information in a book, each copy must be rounded up and destroyed. For Internet-based information to go down, only the data hosts need be eliminated. Unlike letters sent in the mail, emails are often poorly archived, challenging our ability to preserve important correspondence. As more and more data enters what is known as the Internet cloud and no longer sits on personal storage devices, a centralized loss could be catastrophic.

(Photo by Flickr user joguldi)