UP IN THE CLOUD - OR, MAYBE NOT

   I'm getting old. I seem to be in pretty good shape for my age, and am not anticipating leaving this life any particular time soon. Still, time marches on, and a couple years ago it dawned on me that it might not be too soon to start organizing that part of my life that I would like to pass on to others. So, I've been gathering up books, papers, photos, color slides, etc., from all corners of my house and life; deciding which to keep and which to dispose of; and figuring out how to preserve the things I want to preserve.

   With the help of an excellent slide scanner, and a good all-around scanner for prints and papers, I've managed to convert maybe three-quarters of my important papers and pictures to digital form. As I was scouring through boxes and drawers and files to be sure I found everything, I remembered that I had about ten years worth of photos stored online with PhotoWorks. But when I tried to access their site, I found my password no longer worked.

   I knew that PhotoWorks, as such, no longer exists. It had been sold to American Greetings about 2008, but at the time the companies assured all of us PhotoWorks customers that our precious photos were safe, and would be kept for us forever by the  new company. Apparently, "forever" meant something different when American Greetings sold out their old PhotoWorks accounts to Shutterfly in 2011. According to a Shutterfly representative I contacted in November 2014: on about March 1, 2011, all PhotoWorks/American Greetings customers were warned that their stored photos would not be accessible after April 4, but (if I am reading their communication correctly) we were given until May 2 to set up new accounts with Shutterfly, so they would continue to be preserved. After that, the photos would be gone forever. In this case, "forever" apparently really meant FOREVER.

   I didn't transfer my photos. I could plead that I never got the memo, letter, or e-mail that warned me of the impending demise of my photo collection. (I'm almost positive I didn't.) I could protest that one month (or two, depending on how you interpret what Shutterfly said) isn't much grace time to give when implementing such a major - and irreversible - change. The result is the same: my photos (and undoubtedly those of many other PhotoWorks customers) are permanently, irretrievably gone.

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This isn't meant to be a rant against Shutterfly. Really, the most I can say against them is that they seem to have acted rather cavalierly and precipitously in their handling of other people's personal property. Truthfully, I'm not even that concerned about my lost photos; I don't think there was anything important that I didn't also have as a slide, print, or negative. (If I hadn't bothered to access my account since before March 1, 2011, it's likely there wasn't anything there that I valued too highly.) No, I mention the incident only because it brought back to my mind a discussion that I've been having with myself for a number of years. I wonder what digitization and the internet/world wide web are doing to our future abilities to know and understand history.

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I love the internet. Access to e-mail and the world wide web has truly revolutionized the kinds of things I do as a wildlife researcher, historian, and genealogist. With e-mail, I can get and give in a day (sometimes in minutes) information that, in the 1970s and 1980s,  sometimes took weeks to process via U. S. Mail. I can read online or download books and reports that were once accessible to me only by a visit to a distant library, or with the longsuffering help of friendly but already overworked archivists and librarians. In fact, I can access information from my desk that, before digitization, very likely never would have been available to most researchers (historic newspapers, government correspondence, for example). "Revolutionary" is too weak a description of what has been changed.

 Still, as wonderful as it is, I wonder about some aspects of this information boom. There seem to me to be some issues that need to be resolved, to ward off unintended consequences. For example:

   1. How do we take some of the ephemerality out of the internet? Web information has a disturbing ability to come and go at amazing speeds and with seeming unpredictability. A website that I find today may well be gone tomorrow. Many books and journal articles cite items found on the internet, but following up on a reference as often as not yields a "page not available" notice, not the data you were seeking.

   I have changed my own websites often enough to know that most individually-generated online information will not be archived for future investigators, no matter how significant the data might be. Hopefully, we will always have the Library of Congress, and probably sites like Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, and some of the professional e-journals will continue to find sponsors willing to preserve and manage them.  But I don't see evidence of any guarantees.

   Hard copy (books, papers, photos) takes up a lot of room, is often not easily accessed, and eventually decays and disappears. Still, we use today much that has been around for centuries. As we digitize more and more, can we afford to get rid of the originals without knowing for sure that the new records will really be preserved for the long term?

 2. How do we assure that preserved records will continue to be accessible? Human history is full of examples of both "planned obsolescence" (to assure we keep selling new products) and the unintended consequences of real improvements and advancements. Anyone who has been buying music for 50 or 60 years has personally watched the rise and fall of 78s, 45s, LPs, 8-tracks, and cassette tapes. Almost everyone in the United States who has lived more than 30 years has movies on VCR, unusable on anything but tape machines that won't play any of the movie formats available now, and that are now old, irreplaceable, and sometimes incompatible with our current televisions.

   Obviously, the same has happened  - and continues to happen - with computer software and hardware. I have dozens of floppy disks that may or may not have good stuff on them; I can't tell because I haven't had a computer that could read them for 15 or 20 years. Some computers don't even have a slot for a CD-ROM, anymore, relying entirely on downloading from the internet. I use EndNote to catalog all my biology, history and genealogy files, and have something like 10,000 references abstracted, many of them with copies of the original records attached. It's a wonderful program; unfortunately, it can only be easily accessed by people who  have EndNote, themselves.

   Presumably, there isn't anything on vinyl, disk, or computer program that isn't readable SOMEWHERE - somebody can still play 78s and 8-track tapes, and somebody can still read floppy disks. Somebody will undoubtedly have a way to access my EndNote files without having EndNote, or after EndNote is defunct. But the question is, will it be "worth it" to find and use the equipment? Will all of those floppies be saved on the chance that some day, somebody will pair them with the right equipment and see what's on them? It seems unlikely.

   3. How do we deal with the overwhelming nature of internet communications, and what will be the long-term effect on the historical record resulting from the "cheapening" of our communications?

   There's no question that e-mail, social media sites, and face-to-face online chats have made it easier to "keep in touch." I trade e-mails regularly with family, friends, and associates. Even without tweeting, twittering, texting, or any of the other new ways of corresponding favored by the younger generations, my e-mail "mail box" gathers a lot of communications.

   There is some good stuff in some of these e-mails, information that you or somebody else might like to know some day. Unfortunately, these gems are buried in tons of debris that can really only be called "communication" because they pass from one person to another.  I'm not a prolific e-mailer, and yet today I have 1,093 e-mails in my "mail box," even though I regularly use the "delete" button. My e-mail provider says not to worry about deleting; I am allowed space for at least another 100,000 messages, I think. But when I die, what do my heirs do with my "legacy" of 100,000 e-mails? If they are smart, they probably will hit the "delete all" button.

   We have neither the time nor the incentive to glean the significant information out of our billions of online communications. But even if we found some effective way to do it, I think those who follow after us would find the record depauperate, compared to what our predecessors left us. Internet communication, by its very nature, is likely to be brief, terse, and devoid of the frills that often make history interesting and meaningful. Those of us who have spent long hours poring over old family letters - trying to decipher handwriting, mentally adding punctuation, and trying to guess what a misspelling was really meant to be - are sure that few e-mails will ever tell us as much about the times and the people. Much of this hard-copy family lore was preserved out of sentimentality, and even more of it just because nobody ever got around to throwing it away. Even though a tremendous amount of information in e-mails is saved by inertia, when it comes right down to it, who is likely to win the competition between sentimentality and "delete now?"

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Some computer experts tell us that almost nothing is ever really lost from our computers and from the internet. It's either hidden away somewhere in your computer, it's been archived in various data banks, or perhaps it's stored up there in that mysterious Cloud. That may be, but for all practical purposes, my PhotoWorks files are gone, forever. How sure are we that all we are dumping into cyberspace will really be around in 100 or 200 years - and how sure are we that it will be retrievable? I hope somebody somewhere is thinking about it.


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