Completeness versus permanence

I realised something interesting tonight. For the first time, for a huge number of people, all of their personal correspondence will be neatly catalogued and saved. This is thanks to the pervasiveness of email — both people and businesses.

And unlike old boxes of letters, this correspondence is easily disseminated. Gmail has made me pretty fastiduous about keeping my inbox clear — however, with great search, most people don’t even need to organise their email. What this means is that all aspects of my life — travel bookings, concert tickets, bills, short notes, long catch ups, letters back home from holidays, photos sent, job applications, arguments with my brother, and so on — are being neatly stored and catalogued for the future. No lost filing cabinets, nothing thrown away, no mould or water damage.

It’s a stunning thought really — with Gmail specifically, people are now far more likely to have a permanent email account with enough storage to keep using indefinitely without deleting anything. Imagine how useful this information will be in hundreds of years for researching history.

But there’s the rub. I won’t cover this too much, as data ownership and safety is a much-discussed issue, but what happens when/if Google is acquired or goes out of business? What if they decide to close the account, or they have a catastrophic server failure? I have Gmail offline and Thunderbird to back up my mail (which most Gmail users won’t do), but even in this case, who knows what web browsers and mail readers will be like in the future — even if I own a local copy, will I be able to read it?

Essentially we’ve traded simplicity of archiving for the difficulty of maintaining the archive into the future. Previously you could just take a letter and throw it in an archive box and put it in an attic. You never had to touch it again and it would maintain its state. Now you need to find different ways to keep your data available and safe. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if we actually end up with fewer sources of archived data, but they will be more complete. It’s certainly interesting wondering how this is all going to shake out…