Archive for January, 2010

The Internet is an Archive

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

The Internet has changed the way we shop, communicate, and get our questions answered. Someday, it may change the way we understand the past as well. Unless you carefully preserve it, ink on paper does not have an especially long life. And even writing that does survive is difficult to explore. Text and artifacts of an ended era are often scattered through libraries, museums and private collections. An exhaustive search of the material requires dedication and plane tickets.

But my great-great-grandchildren might be able to look me up on Facebook or Twitter. They could see photos of me through different phases of my life. They could find out who my friends were, what music I enjoyed, even download those songs. And further down the road some distant relative could trace the many paths that led to him: the familial successes and tragedies; the dreams, hopes and unlikely coincidences that came together to cause a single birth. Genealogy is a popular topic today, will it grow even more so when, through a lifetime of expression, you can get to know intimately any of your ancestors?

Text Analytics, I suspect, will play a major role in the future of history. In twitter streams and blog posts, historians will be able to watch the ebb and flow of ideas. Traditionally, outbreaks of war draw the world’s attention, and we watch as the conflict plays out. But with pervasive archival, we’ll be able to follow the causes backwards as well. The countless anonymous participants in great moments will have identities that can be discovered, motivations and personalities that were formerly lost.

The Internet has the potential to be an archival form unlikely anything the world has ever experienced. In its youth it’s easy to lose sight of this: Less than thirty years old and much younger in terms of mass popularity, there isn’t a deep history to explore. But I think in the long run the Internet’s greatest contribution might end up being what it can teach us about ourselves by protecting our individualities from the ever growing entropy of time.