Forgetting to remember in the digital age
Updated on 07 September 2022
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.