During the Digital Footprint series, we’ve touched on the casualties and pitfalls of a poorly maintained digital presence, and we’ve covered a variety of ways in which one can preserve and improve the quality of their lives online. But what if we told you that every shred of your personal experience on the Internet is, according to some, only temporary?
It seems difficult to comprehend in this age of hyper-communication. Our photographs, our documents, our blog posts, our tweets, our contacts, our presentations, and publications—everything our digital lives touch seem to be immovable and permanent. This may not be exactly the truth—at least for the long term and looking to the future.
Permanent is temporary
Yes, everything is accessible: for now. But what about the long-term? 20 years from now? 50 years? 200 years from now? A multitude of printed records, constructed and compiled by our ancestors, have endured the test of time, and as a result, we still know a tremendous amount about how people in 1816 lived. The worry shared by technology experts is simple: as time progresses, will we still have the ability to access the information that exists now, and defines us? In short: will historians of the future look back on the early 21st century and see a void?
Vint Cerf, a VP at Google, has reminded us that some information from the most recent iterations of technology have already been lost to the ravages of time: VHS cassettes, vinyl records, and floppy discs only have a certain shelf life, and once they degrade, the unique information on them can be lost to the sands of time. While electronic media doesn’t erode in the same, physical, way that analog media does, we do currently have a global lack of electronic storage that can be guaranteed to withstand the centuries. Cerf calls this slow erosion “bit rot.” How can we be sure that the software that exists now, that helps us view a .jpeg file, will still exist in the year 2116, and for that matter, how can we be sure that the information that exists already will be carefully copied to new storage mechanisms with each successive generation? You must Looking to the Future.
You, in 2036
Up until now, we’ve only discussed your digital footprint in terms of how it affects your standing in the marketplace, and while it’s an interesting topic of consideration, what does this “bit rot” have to do with your job?
In the same way global leaders of information storage are obligated to look forward centuries into the future to ensure that this doesn’t become a “lost century,” so must we, the individuals, look ahead into much shorter spans of time to ensure that elements of our own lives, and careers, won’t become equally “lost.”
Your career, with luck, will be fruitful, and long. But with the evolution of technology, can we say, with any relative certainty, that the technology to access a USB flashdrive will be available during the 2030s? What about an external hard drive? Even with the advent of cloud computing, can we honestly believe that access to a neglected DropBox account will be able to be certainly reinstated? If you’re still wondering, ask yourself: what would you do if you found it necessary to recover a crucial document, today, from a 3.5-inch floppy disk?
The fundamental point of this Digital Footprint series has been that we live, more and more, our lives online. Any person who has enjoyed a lifelong career will tell you: sometimes, it becomes necessary to look decades back, into the filing cabinets, to find a pivotal piece of information that affects their lives in the present. The you of the year 2036 could, very well, need the information that’s stored—seemingly forever—in the year 2016.
It’s easy to convince yourself that you’ll be diligent: that you’ll preserve the important information. But with the sheer amount of information stored in the ether, how likely is this prospect?
Preserve your information – starting today
There are a few tips you can employ, starting today, that will help you organize your information for decades to come and you should looking to the future.
Backup Your Backup
Buy two hard drives that each contain at least two terabytes of space. Keep one on your desk, and use it regularly in conjunction with your computer’s History Backup function (“Time Machine” on Mac). Keep the other hard drive someplace safe, preferably off property. Once every six months, copy the contents of the first hard drive onto the second one. This ensures that you always have a backup of all of your information.
Update Your Technology
Experts recommend backing up your information to the newest form of storage technology every five to seven years. This may seem daunting at first, as the amount of information we have grows exponentially. Thankfully, so does storage capacity, which doubles, relative to its price, every two years. So, 16 terabytes of storage media in 2022 will cost the same as two terabytes today.
Imagine a journalist who wants to look back 20 years for an audio file from an important interview. If it’s not labeled properly, it could very well exist, but could be as easy to find as a needle in a haystack. Periodically going through your information and properly labeling it could save that individual a huge amount of time and strain in the future.
Be Aware of “Phasing Out”
Microsoft Office is an industry standard. But can you be certain that you’ll still be using this program 20 years from now? What about Facebook, or Instagram? Or even your email account, where so many contacts and important emails are stored? Every five years, make sure you have a method of accessing the information you rely on, today. Aside from a local computer crash, your cloud-based information isn’t going to vanish overnight—just maybe someday. Keep an eye on it and keep looking to the future.
Trim the fat
Every piece of information isn’t important. If you’re particularly devoted, use your twice-yearly check-in to rid yourself of the excess information that would just take up extra space. This will make it easier to organize, and much easier to find what you’re looking for, years down the line.
Good old fashioned paper
We’re a paperless society, more and more. But sometimes, the most sure-fire way of preserving the most important documents in our lives is to apply them to paper. Print photographs, documents, and important pieces of information on archival, acid free materials, and store them in cool, dry, dark places.
This type of preparation might seem like a drag. But so is cleaning and maintaining your house once a year. You preserve what you want, and get rid of the excess. The same goes with our information. It’s better to put some time in now to make sure it’s able to be accessed for years—even decades—to come.