Virtual memory: the race to save the information age

Review by Richard Ovenden in the Financial Times of:
You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia, by Jack Lynch, Bloomsbury, RRP£25/$30, 464 pages

When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future, by Abbey Smith Rumsey, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/$28, 240 pages

Ctrl + Z: The Right to Be Forgotten, by Meg Leta Jones, NYU Press, RRP£20.99/$29.95, 284 pages

“…For millions of people, technological devices have become essential tools in keeping memories alive — to the point where it can feel as though events without an impression in silicon have somehow not been fully experienced. In under three decades, the web has expanded to contain more than a billion sites. Every day about 300m digital photographs, more than 100 terabytes’ worth, are uploaded to Facebook. An estimated 204m emails are sent every minute and, with 5bn mobile devices in existence, the generation of new content looks set to continue its rapid growth.

Is the abundance of information in the age of Google and Facebook storing up problems for future generations? Richard Ovenden, who as Bodley’s Librarian is responsible for the research libraries of the University of Oxford, talks about the opportunites and concerns of the digitisation of memory with John Thornhill, the FT’s innovation editor

We celebrate this growth, and rightly. Today knowledge is created and consumed at a rate that would have been inconceivable a generation ago; instant access to the fruits of millennia of civilisation now seems like a natural state of affairs. Yet we overlook — at our peril — just how unstable and transient much of this information is. Amid the proliferation there is also constant decay: phenomena such as “bit rot” (the degradation of software programs over time), “data rot” (the deterioration of digital storage media) and “link rot” (web links pointing to online resources that have become permanently unavailable) can render information inaccessible. This affects everything from holiday photos and email correspondence to official records: to give just one example, a Harvard study published in 2013 found that 50 per cent of links in the US Supreme Court opinions website were broken.

Are we creating a problem that future generations will not be able to solve? Could the early decades of the 21st century even come to seem, in the words of the internet pioneer Vint Cerf, like a“digital Dark Age”? Whether or not such fears are realised, it is becoming increasingly clear that the migration of knowledge to formats permitting rapid and low-cost copying and dissemination, but in which the base information cannot survive without complex and expensive intervention, requires that we choose, more actively than ever before, what to remember and what to forget….(More)”