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Durable Ephemerality

by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander on July 28th, 02010

Jeff Rothenberg once said “Digital information lasts forever – or five years, whichever comes first.”  This is basis of an interesting debate between New York Times writer Jeffrey Rosen who recently published “The End of Forgetting,” and Scott Rosenberg’s rebuttal on his blog. (Excerpt from Rosenberg below)

But Rosen is too busy hatching plans for “expire dates” on social-network postings and other artificial-forgetting schemes to give his head the Janus-turn his subject demands. The idea that the Web has a long memory is hardly new (here’s J.D. Lasica’s piece on how “The Web Never Forgets” from 1998). But there is a flipside to this notion: Information online can be fragile and fleeting, as well. There is an entropic quality to everything that is shared online. Data gets lost; servers die; databases are corrupted; formats fall into disuse; storage media deteriorate; backups fail.

Rosen’s piece along with new projects such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s HTTPS Everywhere project are reactions to a feeling that we are losing privacy in the digital age.  These reactions have an unfortunate side effect however – if we encrypt or auto delete our data, we will lose it forever.

Privacy and security concerns generally have a short half life.  While you might not want your drunk college photos to be a part of a future employers decision making criteria, you will certainly lament losing all your chilhood photos by the time you are 60.  If we lost the treasure trove of human to human interactions that is now being recorded on the web it would truly be a tragedy.  Imagine how much more we would know about ancient Rome, Egypt, or the Mayan culture if we could sift through their Facebook logs…