Information Persistence – The Impossible Eraser

Very few people realize that nearly every article, photo, blog, posting on the web will literally live on forever.  Parents don’t realize this, and their children do not understand the consequences.

Thank goodness I went through school before MySpace and cellphone cameras.  Not that I was particularly wild (I wish), but there were always moments best left to memory and not preserved on film.  Things I did or said are not saved anywhere, except in the faded memories of myself and the few others with me at the time.  When I interview for a job, or encourage my clients to look up evidence of my work, I know they won’t find photos of me blotto in a gutter, ca. 1985, or ranting against a company who might now be my employer.

Not so for today’s generation, who wantonly take photos of each other with cellphone cameras, post them on MySpace, Flickr, PhotoBucket or their own blogs.  Youth who blog about their exploits, while funny now, will discover their materials saved, searchable and viewable for the rest of their lives – whether they approve or not, and even if they remove these materials at a later date.  Teens who are victims of cyber-bullying will discover that the taunts and pages set up to harass them will be linked publicly, forever, to their names.  Here is one mother’s frustration at a real, personal experience.

Information Persistence is a phenomenon less than ten years old.  It means that once information is found and linked on the web, it will remain linked and available long into the future.  Libraries have attempted to preserve permanent copies of books for thousands of years, but until recently, there has not been any tools to record ordinary peoples’ activities on a mass scale – and make them available worldwide, instantly.

One of the most effective archiving websites is the Wayback Machine at www.archive.org – you can enter a website (e.g. yahoo.com) and discover that the Wayback Machine has archived Yahoo’s contents several times per month, going back to 1996!  Normally, we just see the current page of a website, but the Wayback Machine allows us to see a snapshot of almost any web site back to its beginning.  This happens automatically and without our explicit approval.

Google has 200,000 servers worldwide storing (“caching”) every website it discovers.

Another archive, with a more conspiracy-theorist bent is the Memory Hole at www.thememoryhole.org and its blog at www.thememoryblog.org.  These sites find and record information which has been publicly accessible on the web and later removed from the original site.  Much of their information concerns government documents and photos that were not intended to be revealed or distributed widely.  Lots of documentation on 9/11, the war in Iraq, Mohammed drawings, for example.  This is a positive function of Information Persistence, and I appreciate that this is possible in an open, democratic society.  The truth must come out.

But do teenagers documenting their wild times realize that what they write, photograph and post will be visible forever?  It’s been said that “you should not write anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read.”  The same holds true for posting on the Internet – and just assume your grandmother will be reading your blog years into the future!

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