The Illusion of Permanence

A week or so ago, a number of Facebook users got extremely irritated when Facebook tried to change its terms of service to claim the rights of all content posted there in perpetuity. On the surface, that seems to be a bit extreme and might warrant an outcry.

Except… is anything electronic and on the web really permanent? Just look at how fast sites change. Exactly where is the record of what was there yesterday… or last week… let alone last month or last year?

I got to thinking about this for the latest time when I considered my Boeing Graph program. It was a wonderful graphing tool back when I was doing computer graphics for various businesses. It still might be, except that I never bothered to convert the 5 1/2 inch floppies into another format, and I haven’t had a computer with that capability for years, nor have I seen a version of it for sale in an updated format. In fact, I still use 3 inch disks, and I’ve been informed that they’re nearly obsolete. And I’m still using Word 7.0 to write books, because it will also access all the older WordPerfect files so that I don’t have to convert some twenty years of writing and notes. And besides, it doesn’t require as much use of the mouse, which is an advantage for someone who likes the keyboard. Yes, I know, I could program or learn all the alternative keystrokes for the current version of Word, at least until there’s another newer and improved version. But it’s not just me. There’s all sorts of NASA data that’s virtually lost because the electronic systems have changed and because no one thought to convert it — or perhaps they didn’t have the budget to do so.

That’s the thing about paper. We still have books that are hundreds of years old. They may be fragile, but just how much of all the electronic data we’re archiving right now is really going to be accessible in a decade or two, let alone a century? My wife has pointed out that all the old letters in her grandmother’s trunk were priceless. They showed how people thought and felt. Somehow, I don’t see my grandchildren being able to even find my emails. More than a few times, I’ve been able to go back and dig out data from my old consulting reports — those that I was smart enough to print out. I’d be surprised if much of that data exists anywhere else.

And, by the way, there are a few institutions and even one religion that keep revising their tenets. You can see this when you compare print versions, but such comparisons get harder and harder when everything’s electronic.

I haven’t mentioned the problem of servers and their impermanence, either. Or electronic worms and viruses. The old-fashioned book worms took months, if not years, to destroy a single book. The electronic variety can wipe out entire databases in instants. Something like ten years ago, a movie called The Net came out, and it showed exactly what could happen in a society with too great a reliance on electronic systems and too few safeguards. Certainly, there are greater safeguards today than people envisioned back then, but think about the President’s proposal to set up universal electronic medical records. Yes, those records can be accessed from anywhere, but that also means they can be altered or destroyed from anywhere. With paper records in each hospital, someone intent on destroying large amounts of records would have to visit every hospital. Not so once everything’s electronic.

The most obvious price for easier electronic access and convenience is potentially greater vulnerability. There’s also another price, and that’s mandatory standardization, because standardization also increases vulnerability.

It’s certainly a lot more convenient to manipulate electronic text, and it’s been a boon to all of those of us who write, but I would note that all my contracts with my publisher specify that I’m supposed to keep a “hard” copy of every book… just in case.

What will happen if we end up going to E-books, because paperbacks and hardcovers are too expensive?

We can still read Sumerian, Babylonian, Hittite, and Egyptian texts thousands of years old, especially those inscribed on clay. I have my doubts about the survival of much current and future “literature” disseminated as electrons on a screen, but then, given where entertainment is headed, that might just be a blessing.