A while back I read a news article pointing out an issue largely overlooked, namely the transience of digital data.

For thousands of years, institutional and personal memory were stored solely in physical written form, on paper, papyrus, wax, stone, you name it. The systems for writing these memories are well known and easily accessible: anyone who can read the language can read virtually anything. The down side is that accessing a piece of data in its native form requires a physical token, such as the book containing that data. How many of you remember taking a trip to the library when you needed to know something 30 years ago? And waiting for a book from inter-library loan if the local library didn't have it, sometimes being shipped from hundreds of miles away...

We've switched ease of access and permanence. Thanks to computers and networking, virtually any information you're interested in is no further away than your desktop, or perhaps your pocket if you're especially well connected. This comes at a price, though: most institutional and personal memory will be lost in just a few years, thanks to rapidly evolving digital storage formats and the lack of a long-lived, easily accessible physical store.

It's not uncommon to find written diaries from both common folks and historical figures going back hundreds of years. However, I challenge you to find an electronic diary of someone from the 80's that can still be read today. For example, I did a lot of writing on my Atari 520ST, and stored it on 3.5" floppies. Assuming the floppies are even working today, I don't have any machines with a floppy drive. I certainly don't have any that can read the data files created by whatever word processor I used, and it didn't save in plain text.

Is the web a temporally localized phenomenon, or will it last for centuries? It's too early to tell. But if it *doesn't* last, how much information will be lost when it fades into obscurity? Will digital archaeologists be able to make heads or tails of what came even a few decades before?

With luck, we'll never know. But our grandchildren will.