Who will write our electronic history?

This post was originally published as an article on the “Write The Web” blog. Ironically its no longer on the site, but there is a copy in the Wayback Machine.

A major branch of current historical research involves collating biographical material on important figures of public interest in a particular period. Now imagine you’re an Internet user living 5, 10, 20, 100 years from now. How will you gather biographical material about people living in the 1990s and 2000s? More and more people are living out significant parts of their lives online, from both business, technical, and social standpoints. But will the content about those people, some of whom may play pivotal roles in current events, still be available?

Take Charles Darwin as an example. His prolific correspondence sheds light onto the man himself, the Victorian era in which he lived, and perhaps most significantly how he came to formulate the theory of evolution. Indeed, attempts are now being made to make thiscorrespondence available online. This insight into Darwin and his times is only possible because his correspondence has survived intact.

What is the equivalent of Darwin’s letters in the e-society? There are a lot of candidates to chose from; the e-society is not short on methods of communications Email, discussion group messages, newsgroup messages and home pages/weblogs are some obvious mediums. Yet these can be more ephemeral resources than physical letters.

We’re lucky that someone chose to preserve Darwin’s letters. But is Deja.com, for example, choosing to archive the content of all newsgroups in case of any future light they may shed on life in the 1990s? How will a historical researcher in the latter half of this century track down the discussions of J Random Genius, who first formulated the Theory of X during the 1990s?

We should consider whether alongside increasing power of communications we, as a society, are also losing contextual information hand-over-fist. The question is not one of literacy, but whether the interactions that bind any society together are being lost in the rapid expansion into the online world. Of course it’s impossible to stay on top of all the information out there, but could be we losing something valuable?

To put it another way: is the ultimate Semantic Web going to have a Year Zero, before which everything is ignored, simply because there are no suitable archives? There are obviously a lot of technical, as well as social problems that have to be resolved. Here are three to mull over:

Firstly: how do you uniquely identify someone, so that you can track their contributions to the Web? An email address isn’t enough, they’re easily acquired and easily lost.

Secondly: who carries out the archiving of information, what credentials do they have, and who pays? Are there organizations out there already attempting this? For printed matter, there are libraries around the world (including the British Library, and the Library of Congress) that hold copies of virtually everything currently being produced in print. Where is the equivalent for the Web? So much is lost already.

Thirdly: where does privacy come into the picture–how much of what you post is purely public domain, and how much is private? Are “private” emails private? Should they be private for posterity? Can you assert intellectual property rights to remove you from the annals of history?

On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn’t care. Our society is enabled by today’s communications media, and is enriched by the additional interactions brought about by the Internet–the past is not as important as the present, let history look after itself.

Maybe, but I’m not so sure.