One day it was there: an erudite blog with poetry, prose, reflections and intuitions. The next, it was gone. It was like being stood up five years into the relationship, but without the mirth of the bar staff.
This was no accidental outage, no 404 error, this was a deliberate act of suicide by the site owner. ‘The author of this site has deleted their blog’. Someone had woken up on the morning of Monday 9th May, 2011, and decided that their site, with all of it’s ramblings, musings, pithy observations and touching modesty had to go. They had built a body of work, a following, maybe not an opus, but certainly a decent paperback, but clearly it was not enough.
In a digital age, we are used to the persistence of data. It’s positively impossible to really shift something, even if you want to. I’m reading Richard Mabey’s excellent book on ‘Weeds’ at the moment (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Weeds-vagabond-gatecrashed-civilisation-changed/dp/184668076X), where he talks at length about the early volumes, written by Greek herbalists and medieval monks. In particular, he talks with reverence about one tome, nearly 900 years old, still in perfect condition in the Bodlean Library in Oxford.
The chances of such an illustrated work surviving for 900 years are slim, avoiding damage by fire, water or simply loved to death through extensive foxing. Websites are different. They never become dog eared, they never fade, the binding never gives out and you don’t have to pack them in a box in the attic when you grow tired of them but don’t want to throw them out just yet. They are indexed and mirrored, inherently pervasive and have a strange feel of permanence about them.
The challenges of indexing and ‘saving’ all of this information is one that Google and chums have thankfully taken on for us, and, indeed, for certain key sites, there are active conservation programmes. Certainly the Library of Congress saves all governmental emails for future generations to chuckle about.
When knowledge is created, there is a sense of permanence about it, the sudden loss is disturbing. It’s like losing the contacts on your phone; although they are only digital, only virtual, they have a feel of solidity about them and their loss provokes a very emotional response.
At a time when we are examining how to create communities online, building their architecture in software and their culture in shared discussions and writing, the permanence of these structures is important. Do we accept that, Atlantis like, they are swept away with time, or do we imagine that they will persist forever?