Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Forgetting to remember in the digital age

Published on 29 April 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

This year we celebrate Diplo’s tenth anniversary, and 20 years since the start of the first e-diplomacy project at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies. I have been in a mood of going through old papers, books and messages lately. A small success was the recovery of a database with legal opinions of the old Yugoslav diplomacy (written using Clipper/MS DOS). When I joined the legal department of Yugoslavia’s diplomacy section in 1990, I discovered a dusty cupboard in the corner, full of legal opinions made by some leading international lawyers, such as Professor Milan Bartos, drafter of the convention on special missions. Nobody cared about it.  I spent a few months re-typing the collection of legal opinions. These legal opinions have been saved, unlike the country of Yugoslavia, and most of what it produced.  Some of these legal opinions are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s when Professor Bartos wrote them.

I have been less successful with accessing my email from the early 1990s, when I used the Eudora email management software (I’m still trying to find a convertor) and my documents, saved in the then-popular WordPerfect. The situation is better with Diplo’s website archives. I found files from the first website (from November 1994, hosted at the Geneva Institute) on my hard drive. The oldest version in the public Internet archive of the then-called DiploProject is from the 30 August 2000.  This time machine is interesting for revisiting current dilemmas. Quite a few are constants!

While my digital archive is better than I expected, it seems that preserving our collective digital memory is a major problem. Archivists consider the early digital age (the late 1990s) to be an archivist’s ’black hole’, a time when the number of physically stored documents sharply dropped. This was a time when document production shifted from old typewriters (Olivetti, IBM) to computerized word processors. Institutions did not understand the complexities of this shift and many documents were not archived in hard copy or in reproducible soft copy.

New procedures for archiving digital materials were introduced in the 2000s, but as the Economist suggests in its latest issue, the original problem remains. Adam Farquhar form the British Library warns: ’If we are not careful, we will know more about the beginning of the 20th century than the beginning of the 21st century’.

One would not have expected that archiving would be a problem, with increasing storage space and decreasing prices. Today one can purchase a portable hard disk with a huge storage capacity for less than a hundred dollars. The problem is still mainly in software compatibility. Similar to my problem with opening my old Eudora mailbox, the general problem of software compatibility persists. We may have a document stored, but what good does it do us if we cannot open it with the software on our computers? While this problem might eventually be solved (as I hope with my Eudora files), a much bigger problem is saving data we have stored on the Internet or ‘in the cloud’ (websites, blogs, tweets). They are a record of our time and age. Many or even most of them will disappear if they are not archived by initiatives such as the Internet Archive which stores 160 billion pages.

Technical solutions, while possibly easier to implement, are not sufficient.  Some ’experts’ even suggest printing out these materials, which for billions of pages, may leave us without forests. The Economist argues for better regulation to support the preservation of our digital memory:  ’Until the law catches up with technology, digital history will have to be written in drips and drabs rather than the great gushes promised by the digital age’. Let’s revisit the Economist article in 10 years, if it remains accessible, to see if they were right.  In the meantime, backup your data.

2 replies
  1. Milutin
    Milutin says:

    I noticed some years ago that
    I noticed some years ago that memories will become a problem of mankind. We tend more and more to keep things. Simply because we have more and more. And, when we are gone, our successors will most probably throw most of it.

    For instance, I collect beer labels. Some of them have kind of a value, but all that I managed to collect so far is more of a storage problem then something to care for. I guess that my daughter will simply throw them all – and I have no reason to argue against.

    Like other things, I keep my old files. Changing my computers and jobs I have some 5 – 6 back-ups. My first problem is actually hardware, as first two of them are on diskettes. Yes, new storage systems allow cheap solutions, but it takes time to more, rename, index all the archives. More and more, specially for my photos (and I have a looot of them), I consider renting space on-line, instead of buying additional external memory.

    When it comes to software problems, one of the challenges for me are fonts. In the early days of my computer work, I used a few fonts created by my brother. Simply, there was a reduced offer, and he was innovative enough to create new fonts. Now I am even scared to think about having to go back and somehow copy paste and correct files – mostly because of our Serbian specific letters ćšžčжђћчшџљњ

    • Jovan Kurbalija
      Jovan Kurbalija says:

      Milutin, you made a good
      Milutin, you made a good point. Today, there are more request for forgetting than remembering on the Internet. A few months ago the Economist had an article on the need to forget (delte old data) on the Internet: https://econ.st/JSWMsJ.
      Forgetting vs. remembering on the Internet is a good illustration of a messy policy situations where one option does not exclude the other. You can find a good arguments for both remembering and forgetting as the Economist did in these two articles. When it comes to beer labels, I still remember a complex exercise of removing the beer label from the Ethiopian beer, which I contributed to your collection. It was a great fun in the Addis restaurant, discussing with the waiter and a few guests the best strategy to remove the label in one piece. This story from Addis remains in my (human) memory!


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