Decay of Digital Data - A New Dark Age
There is an interesting contrast in the way that we perceive the permanence of digital information, especially information stored on the Internet. On one hand, things that make their way onto the Internet can feel like they will last forever, especially embarrassing pictures, comments or representations of our younger selves that we would rather forget. But the reality is that that digital information is surprisingly fragile. Recent research by Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert and Lawrence Lessig suggests that the content behind approximately 49.9% of the links referred to in United States Supreme Court decisions has “rotted” away and no longer deliver the content they once provided.
This is a serious issue that undermines the very nature of legal precedent. It also is an indicator of a much deeper problem with our relationship to digital information in general. We may be entering a catastrophic ’Digital Dark Age,’ where our descendants in the far future will know more about everyday life in Rome than our lives today.
‘Link rot’ is the degradation of internet links, when they point to resources that are no longer available or have changed. Most of our world’s legal systems are built on a combination of documented laws, precedence from previous cases and reference evidence. When these were stored in physical formats, we could make a tenuous path through the resources available to understand the context of a ruling.
In the past, pieces of analogue information have shown themselves to be relatively stable. Books have lasted hundreds of years, papyrus scrolls have lasted thousands of years and a few precious cave paintings have lasted tens of thousands of years. The very nature of physical information can make it difficult to access and therefore less subject to the whims of a network. Can we imagine the digital resources of today lasting even a fraction of that time?
Digital information is dynamic. It exists only through replication and constant maintenance. Digital assets are often built in languages or tools that age, meaning not only do rotted links restrict access to the information, even when we can reach it, we can no longer read it. It would seem straightforward for us to keep everything we create digitally, but do we really want a perfect record of every comment, every photo of a feline and every bad joke? Who decides what is meaningful information (like court decisions) and what is not?
If at least 49.9% of the links referred to in United Supreme Court decisions do not point to their original reference material, this renders the Supreme Court rulings rather nebulous, which is worrying. It also points the way to a much deeper question about our relationship with digital information.
MySpace, which surprisingly still exists, recently lost years of content in a server migration. At its peak in 2006 it had 100 million users. Some are happy to see the content gone, many adolescent and angst-ridden pages vanishing for good from the internet. Others are distraught. As part of the purge, it is estimated that MySpace deleted 50 million songs. For some, this can be devastating. One commenter noted, “My son recorded a song when he was 7 years old that his guitar instructor uploaded to his Myspace page. My son died two years ago, at the age of 20, and I would do anything to be able to hear it again.”
From a historian’s perspective, we’ve lost a time capsule on what it was like to live through the first era of digital life online. The loss of the MySpace data isn’t the first such purge. We’ve already lost Geocities, Google Plus and many others. There is no way to recover information that we give over to commercial third parties. Businesses may change or vanish, systems go down, file standards change and attacks can delete digital information for good. When a phone vanishes it can result in years of lost accumulated data and photos.
For digital information to be preserved, it has to constantly be transformed and updated as it migrates forward through time. For individuals, there may be legal restrictions about what you can archive and what you can’t. There are also technical restrictions about whether people know how to self-archive content from sources like MySpace.
During the Early Middle Ages (the more accurate label for the ‘Dark Ages’) civilisation took a step backwards in learning, the rule of law and many other aspects. But even through the upheaval, scholars in the East were preserving and working on information from antiquity. Monks across the West were laboriously copying and re-copying old texts. They had an imperfect system, but in many ways seemed to have a deeper respect for the value of information.
We’ve lost focus on how our systems deal with digital information over time. There are solutions like ’Perma,' where a network of libraries maintain a digital archive of crucial citations and the source material the citation points to. It’s one solution, but it doesn’t have wide acceptance outside select communities. Private institutions, like the Internet Archive are attempting to constantly back up the Internet, but they may or may not survive the vicissitudes of time.
We like to think that improvements in technology will create a world tomorrow that is better than today. However, we are rushing forward into a world where popular music videos are replicated thousands of times, but crucial windows into human life, legal decisions and precious research is lost. We are letting popularity algorithms and business models determine what is kept. It cuts right to the heart of our ownership over information and our responsibility to maintain it for the future. We’ve conceived this digital world of information as a system that we would manage with a top-down intelligence, but we’ve proven incapable of managing it well.
Zittrain, Jonathan and Albert, Kendra and Lessig, Lawrence, Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations (October 1, 2013,). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 13-42. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2329161 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2329161
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