Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Internet Lie #6


Online is Forever


Culture is what binds humans together. It does so in groups, over time, and over distance. The mechanism that enables the latter two, time and distance, is language. It is our great evolutionary advantage. The first such ratchet up this ladder was spoken language. Then written language substantially multiplied that advance. Look at the advantages of cultural binding in time and over distance due to written language. Then other technologies extended language and each created its own major ratchet effect: the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, computer communication, and now the Internet. (Distance has been completely abolished by the Internet.) Yet of all of these, it’s still the printing press that gives us the greatest preservation of culture over time. It is our cultural life raft.


However, most people (and pundits alike) are under the impression that what we write on the Internet, language in the form of bits and bytes, will last forever. They seem unaware that the problems of computer media obsolescence also apply to the Internet. Every advance in data storage comes at the expense of an older medium. Over the years, we have advanced from punched cards to tapes to floppies to CDs and DVDs.


Add to obsolescence the fact that old Web pages disappear even as new ones are added. The sum may be increasing, but the problem is large enough to be named (Web Decay and linkrot) and studied. One estimate is that web pages last only 100 days on average. Another says they disappear at a rate up to one half of one percent—a week. One half of one percent of well over a trillion web pages is a big number.


Compared to the printed word, the Internet is not just transitory, it is largely ephemeral. Champions of the Internet want to overlook the fact that mishandled or maliciously applied atomic weaponry could destroy far more of the electronic Internet than actual, physical books. Despite this danger, they are almost unanimous in thinking we should give up the printed word, the book, for words on the Internet. Another case of too many people thinking we should just because we can. Too few realize that if we do, we risk giving up our entire culture, the basis of our humanity. They want us to abandon our lifeboat.

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