Thoughts

On the ephemerality of digital publishing

For all the ease of use and low cost of entry of digital publishing, there’s its inescapable ephemeral nature. I’m not talking about digital books, photographs, music and movies, although there’s a lot to be said about those things as well. That sort of distributed publishing puts a copy of your creation on someone else’s device, and is thus more buffeted against the inevitable loss or data corruption that occurs, because copies of your creation will likely survive somewhere. What I want to talk about is this very thing I’m using right now to publish this: my website.

It could be perceived as a contradiction in appearances to talk about how fleeting my website will be as it’s coming up on 20 years of existence (that’s right, my website will turn 20 later this year, after I turn 44). But I’m thinking beyond my lifetime. I’d like the things I write about, the photographs I take, the videos I make, to reach the generations of the future. I know there’s a lot of drivel out there on the web that won’t stand the test of time, because it’s made specifically for the now, to appeal to trends and other passing nonsense, but I don’t spend my time on those things. At least some of the things I write about are likely applicable or useful 50-100 years down the road, and just as I appreciate books, music and movies published 50-100 years ago, I hope my digital creations will be appreciated a century into the future. But how will it get there? How will my website survive 100 years?

In the past, articles were published on paper, books were published on paper, then we had negatives we could look at; books were scanned. Now when we publish posts and articles on websites, exactly how will this electronic (HTML + CSS + Scripts) format make it down the road? If we die and our domain name is no longer paid up, the website goes down. Should we be hosting our site on a platform like WordPress.com, when we stop paying the site domain may change back to the free WP subdomain, some site services will stop working, but the site will continue to stay up, but until when? Does WP have a plan to exist and function well in 100 years? Does any web publishing platform or social network plan to be around in 100 years? Will YouTube or Facebook be around in 100 years? What if they undergo so many changes in the way things get published and shown to the public that my content can no longer be ported onto the new versions of the software, and it gets left behind? Then there’s the basic nature of a business: it needs money to survive. The “freemium” plans of today, where you get some free services but the better ones cost money, aren’t futureproof. At some point, a company decides it’s had enough of freeloaders and switches to all paid accounts.

The thing with a book or a magazine is that once it’s printed, once it’s made, no further effort is needed to “keep it alive”, and this isn’t the case with digital publishing, where once you’ve made something digital, you still need further energy to keep the web server up and running, more energy to keep it patched up and upgraded, more energy to swap out parts that fail, more energy for the internet bandwidth, etc., energy that translates into utility bills, bandwidth bills and man hours, in perpetuity. None of this is needed with a printed book. It just sits in someone’s library and requires no effort and no energy to simply be there, storing its information for posterity, until someone takes it out, blows off the dust and stats turning its pages to read it. The act of turning a page requires little energy. The act of reading and considering the information that you’re reading consumes quite a bit of mental energy, but the same amount would go into reading something digital. So you see, digital publishing may seem easier and less expensive at the get-go, but it turns out to be mightily complicated and expensive to keep going over decades and decades.

Unless you’ve got the foresight to set up a trust with enough financial resources to keep your digital presence (websites, social media accounts, etc.) up and running, chances are you will be digitally defunct soon after you die or, depending on the circumstances of your last years, say a debilitating disease that won’t allow you to carry on your online presence, you’ll be digitally dead years before your actual death.

I know about services such as the Internet Archive. They’re well-meaning and I wish them the best of luck in storing all of the data, but they’re slow on lookups, and they tend to mess up a page’s style, which is kind of like crinkling up the printed pages in your favorite book and forcing you to read them like that from then on.

We need some way to make a site future-proof, to either make the individual articles or posts digitally distributable, or to come up with ways to make web servers consume less resources, much less resources, so that it’s economically feasible to keep a lot of data up and available in the future at much lower costs than today. I know about printing web pages as PDFs, and that’s something, but how many people do that? I want a clean, ad free, well-formatted, digital copy of a post or article made available to me, automatically. Perhaps solid state storage, on optical non-moving media of sorts, is the way that computers might work, so that the data, once written to that media, consumes no power while it’s not accessed, and the power needed to read it from them is insignificant. This way we could afford to prepay to keep our website up for the next 100 years, and it wouldn’t cost a ridiculous amount.

The current model, of paying yearly for a domain name and monthly or yearly for a web hosting package and a site publishing platform that you need to keep upgrading and updating, or else it’s subject to hacking, isn’t futureproof. It costs a lot and it needs a lot of attention — attention and money that it won’t get once someone’s gone.

We need to make it easier, or as digital information inevitably gets wiped out with time, the valuable sites and articles, that ones that might have made a difference in someone’s future life, if only they’d been available to them, do remain available to them, just like a book or a magazine on a shelf.


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