20 April 2011

How Can Your Content Live After You Die?

The current computer scene is notable for the role played by user-generated content (UGC): Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube etc. are all driven by people's urge to create and share.

Most of this is done by relatively young people; this means death is unlikely to be high on their list of preoccupations. Which also implies that they are probably not thinking about what will happen to all the content they create when they do die.

So we find ourselves in a situation where more and more content is being produced - not all of it great, by any means, by certainly characteristic of our time and important to the people that create it and their family, friends and users. Despite that rapid accumulation, no one is really trying to address the issue of what is going to happen to it all as users die.

This is quite separate from the more immediate problem of services shutting down, as is happening with Google Video. At least in these cases, you generally have the option to transfer it to some other site. But what happens when you - the creator, the uploader, the one that is nominally responsible for that content - are no longer around to do that?

You might hope that your heirs, whoever they might be, would carry on with things. But that presupposes that you leave all your passwords with them - in your will, perhaps? There are probably also issues to do with changing over the ownership of accounts - again, something that has not needed tackling much yet.

But is it really realistic to expect your family and friends to carry on caring for your content? After all, they will probably have their own to worry about. And what happens when they die? Will they then pass on not only their own UGC, but yours too? Won't that create a huge digital ball and chain that grows as it is passed on to the unlucky recipient? Hardly a recipe for sustainability.

Doubtless at some point some sharp entrepreneur will interpret this coming need as an opportunity. Just as you can pay a company to keep your cryogenically-preserved body against the day when a cure will be found for whatever ailment you eventually die of, so there will be companies offering digital immortality for your content.

The key question - as for those cryogenic preservation companies - is: will they really be around in hundreds of years' time? Of course, that's not really a problem for those sharp entrepreneurs that have your money *now*; and there's also not much you will be able to do about it if they don't make good on their side of the bargain...

What we need are repositories where content can be stored safely with a very particular audience in mind: posterity. To a certain extent, the Internet Archive already does that, but as I know from my own blog posts, its coverage is very patchy. And that's to be expected: a single organisation cannot hope to archive the entire Internet, including its second-by-second changes.

Moreover, depending on on one organisation is like putting all of the world's knowledge in the Library of Alexandria and nowhere else: after a good fire or two, you have lost everything. No, the solution is clearly to store the world's digital heritage in a distributed fashion.

We could start with national repositories, like the great deposit libraries that have a copy of every book published in their land. Those national Net holdings might also be national - after all, if every country did this, the world's output would be covered.

But clearly that's not a safe option either: ideally, you want multiple backups of national material to build in redundancy. You'd also want vertical markets to be stored by relevant organisations - every architectural site by some architectural body, every fishing site by some suitable organisation. You might have even more local stores of data in local libraries, or in local universities. Obviously the more the merrier (although it would be good to have some protocol so that they could all signal their existence and what they held to each other.)

Of course, none of this is going to happen, because the intellectual monopolists would be squawking their heads off about the inclusion of "their" content· This would have knock-on consequences for UGC, since, as we know, the boundaries between what is fair use and copyright infringement is ill-defined without hugely-expensive court cases. No organisation is going to take the risk of getting it wrong given the insanely litigious nature of the content companies.

And so we must sit back and contemplate not only the inevitability of our own demise - however far off that might be - but also the inevitable destruction of all that really ace content we have created and will create. Because, you know, maintaining that 18th-century intellectual monopoly is just so much more important than preserving the unparalleled global explosion of human creativity we are currently witnessing online.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


NomDuClavier said...

There are those of us who are right now backing up Google Video, with it ending up on archive.org.

You could call it P4P, Pirating for Posterity, and it's happening in a very P2P fashion.

I totally agree with your implied conclusion that IP monopolies are making it so a Great Library of Internet 'fire' will be at least as devastating as the original one. In that context, I see them as the firemen in Fahrenheit 451.

Glyn Moody said...

@NomDuClavier: archive.org is great, but we need more than that, alas....

twitter said...

History has a tendency to preserve things that are worthy but the current copyright regime undermines this for all of us. What little survives from the pre-industrial world did so because people were free to reproduce it and selected what they thought was worth a few animal hides. The technical and legal hurdles inherent in Facebook, the New York Times and other foolish sites all but insures the destruction of all work put into it. Papers like NYT also lose credibility if they insist on control of all access and prevent local libraries from archiving and sharing. Much will be lost until the copyright maximalists are completely routed around and community libraries can be built with free books and periodicals.

Individuals should host and archive their writings and pictures themselves with free software. Freedombox and diaspora are providing a social network and free software has long had the ability to self publish blogs and photo albums. Far from being a burden, family photo albums are treasures worth preserving and sharing. This is why I've been scanning as many of my family photos as I can. Email, papers and other personal documents are a lot easier to preserve as long as they are in real standard formats like mbox, odf, pdf, etc. Free software provides tools to exactly reproduce files and format conversion utilities always seem to come along as needed. Open Spectrum will eventually solve bandwith problems but traffic to most people's personal archives is small enough to work now.

Glyn Moody said...

@Twitter: yes the Freedombox could help solve many problems...let's hope it comes to fruition soon