My invisible career: how can we preserve our digital stories?

My invisible career: how can we preserve our digital stories?

Imagine you had a message for the future that you wanted to preserve for 5,000 years. Something important that had to survive generations, wars and any number of environmental catastrophes. A message perhaps like: “There was mixed weather this Easter”.  How would ensure that this message would last?

Floppy discs, CDs, tape are horribly obsolete already. Emailing it is unlikely to last more than a couple of years, not least because some companies automatically delete emails after 60 days. So that’s out. Maybe print it out onto paper? This might last a few decades depending on the chemicals in the printer and the quality of the paper – remember how faxes faded after minutes in the sun? Actually, the best way to preserve a message would be to revert to engraving into a hard material. Without a diamond-engraving factory, perhaps the best material would be stone. So after a bit of chiseling, the message is now etched deep in the hardest stone possible.

As the dust is blown of the engraved stone, the challenge now becomes where to store it. Left outside, the message would be battered into invisibility by the elements and moss. Inside – well who knows which buildings will survive hundreds, let along thousands of years. No, it must be stored in a dry place, somewhere undeveloped where your stone message will be as safe as possible.  Somewhere like the driest place on Earth: the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

Fast forward 5,000 years from now, and a passing Martian explorer trips on an exposed piece of stone, and finds the message. The alien deciphers it and scratches his head, thinking: “There must have been a nice temperate climate in Northern Chile populated by English speakers.” The message has been kept but the context renders it useless.

While 5,000 years is a supreme challenge, the rate at which digital technology is being superseded means that this problem exists well within a lifetime. Indeed I have recently been wondering how to keep working copies of the many interactive projects I have produced over the years: The laserdiscs that were in the Wellcome Trust lobby, the CDi interactive story, the floppy disc and CD-ROM Macromedia projects for Penguin. Even the Guardian website relaunches in the late nineties whose aesthetic impact is still felt today. As I look back on these projects, most of them are now offline with no record even on the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine, and the CD-ROMs simply do not work, even if I could find a computer with a CD drive in the first place.

A colleague suggested that this is a similar problem facing theatre actors – if they are not referenced in a review, there is simply no record of their work. Personally I have only a few records on interactive work from the first years of Penguin Digital, of The Guardian’s designs, video games and interactive television projects. Despite having created and launched over 200 digital products, the majority of my career is invisible.

How many digital imprints have disappeared entirely due to technological obsolescence? Is there a far-off corner of an Atacama desert which can catalogue the birth of the most impactful storytelling medium since the Gutenberg press? If these were books, we would look to the British Library, and fortunately they see the significance of the issue. The Library has a 2017-2020 strategy to store digital books, journals, the UK Web Archive, newspapers, manuscripts and personal digital archives among other things, and recognize the challenge of keeping the archive accessible in their Digital Preservation Strategy document: “The integrity of storage media for digital materials diminishes at a more rapid pace than analogue archival storage. Resulting bit rot can prevent files from rendering correctly if at all; this can happen with no notice and within just a few years, sometimes less, of the media being produced.”

Maybe this is a world where ideas and mass creative production move too fast for any archive. How do we know that we need to capture the Snapchat feed of a future Byron? Is trying to catalogue every blog, digital novel, interactive story, such an infinite task that only an infinitesimally large library could manage it. Perhaps it’s a task that only a Borges-designed library could complete – a library with infinite storage and access to the minutiae of the creative process as well as the finished work.

We are not far off chip implants recording everything we see, hear and probably think. Perhaps this will be the way that we record our lives, with these chips then duplicated into the Library archive - if they are interesting enough.

As for me, I have to rely on an imperfect memory of those early ideas, projects and innovations. I am consoled there are ideas I designed in the early nineties that are only now becoming technologically possible. I wish I could show you the drawings and prototypes to prove my prescience, but you will just have to take my word for it as I never made it to the Atacama, and my Commodore 64 is broken.

Top tips to keep an archive: Keep JPG format screen shots of visual work, keep MP3 format audio descriptions of the projects, keep .txt transcripts of articles and books, and MP4 formats of videos. Save local versions of websites onto external hard-drives with USB connections and without power adaptors. Avoid CDs, commercial backup solutions (where you might forget to pay a monthly fee or they go into bankruptcy). Do not encrypt data, just keep it somewhere safe and remember where you’ve stored it!