Ordinary plenty

Aaron asked a while back “What do we own?”

I love the idea of owning your content and then syndicating it out to social networks, photo sites, and the like. It makes complete sense… Web-based services have a habit of disappearing, so we shouldn’t rely on them. The only Web that is permanent is the one we control.

But he quite rightly points out that we never truly own our own domains: we rent them. And when it comes to our servers, most of us are renting those too.

It looks like print is a safer bet for long-term storage. Although when someone pointed out that print isn’t any guarantee of perpetuity either, Aaron responded:

Sure, print pieces can be destroyed, but important works can be preserved in places like the Beinecke

Ah, but there’s the crux—that adjective, “important”. Print’s asset—the fact that it is made of atoms, not bits—is also its weak point: there are only so many atoms to go around. And so we pick and choose what we save. Inevitably, we choose to save the works that we deem to be important.

The problem is that we can’t know today what the future value of a work will be. A future president of the United States is probably updating their Facebook page right now. The first person to set foot on Mars might be posting a picture to her Instagram feed at this very moment.

One of the reasons that I love the Internet Archive is that they don’t try to prioritise what to save—they save it all. That’s in stark contrast to many national archival schemes that only attempt to save websites from their own specific country. And because the Internet Archive isn’t a profit-driven enterprise, it doesn’t face the business realities that caused Google to back-pedal from its original mission. Or, as Andy Baio put it, never trust a corporation to do a library’s job.

But even the Internet Archive, wonderful as it is, suffers from the same issue that Aaron brought up with the domain name system—it’s centralised. As long as there is just one Internet Archive organisation, all of our preservation eggs are in one magnificent basket:

Should we be concerned that the technical expertise and infrastructure for doing this work is becoming consolidated in a single organization?

Which brings us back to Aaron’s original question. Perhaps it’s less about “What do we own?” and more about “What are we responsible for?” If we each take responsibility for our own words, our own photos, our own hopes, our own dreams, we might not be able guarantee that they’ll survive forever, but we can still try everything in our power to keep them online. Maybe by acknowledging that responsibility to preserve our own works, instead of looking for some third party to do it for us, we’re taking the most important first step.

My words might not be as important as the great works of print that have survived thus far, but because they are digital, and because they are online, they can and should be preserved …along with all the millions of other words by millions of other historical nobodies like me out there on the web.

There was a beautiful moment in Cory Doctorow’s closing keynote at last year’s dConstruct. It was an aside to his main argument but it struck like a hammer. Listen in at the 20 minute mark:

Information Doesn’t Want to be Free on Huffduffer

They’re the raw stuff of communication. Same for tweets, and Facebook posts, and the whole bit. And this is where some cynic usually says, “Pah! This is about preserving all that rubbish on Facebook? All that garbage on Twitter? All those pictures of cats?” This is the emblem of people who want to dismiss all the stuff that happens on the internet.

And I’m supposed to turn around and say “No, no, there’s noble things on the internet too. There’s people talking about surviving abuse, and people reporting police violence, and so on.” And all that stuff is important but I’m going to speak for the banal and the trivial here for a moment.

Because when my wife comes down in the morning—and I get up first; I get up at 5am; I’m an early riser—when my wife comes down in the morning and I ask her how she slept, it’s not because I want to know how she slept. I sleep next to my wife. I know how my wife slept. The reason I ask how my wife slept is because it is a social signal that says:

I see you. I care about you. I love you. I’m here.

And when someone says something big and meaningful like “I’ve got cancer” or “I won” or “I lost my job”, the reason those momentous moments have meaning is because they’ve been built up out of this humus of a million seemingly-insignificant transactions. And if someone else’s insignificant transactions seem banal to you, it’s because you’re not the audience for that transaction.

The medieval scribes of Ireland, out on the furthermost edges of Europe, worked to preserve the “important” works. But occasionally they would also note down their own marginalia like:

Pleasant is the glint of the sun today upon these margins, because it flickers so.

Short observations of life in fewer than 140 characters. Like this lovely example written in ogham, a morse-like system of encoding the western alphabet in lines and scratches. It reads simply “latheirt”, which translates to something along the lines of “massive hangover.”

I’m glad that those “unimportant” words have also been preserved.

Centuries later, the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh would write about the desire to “wallow in the habitual, the banal”:

Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.

Isn’t that a beautiful description of the web?