Digital information’s hidden curse

Cyberspace will lose that which we most wish to preserve — and preserve that which we most wish to lose.

Early in the information revolution, the ability to perfectly copy digital data led many to assume that digital information was immortal, and thus the shift from analog to digital would end archiving headaches forever. Then one instance of data loss after another led to the realization that digital data could be vastly more ephemeral than information pressed on yellowing paper. Sadder but wiser, many feared that far from solving our preservation problems, the information revolution was leading us into an age of digital amnesia.

I have a strong suspicion that both outcomes are likely — digital information is at once extremely durable and astoundingly impermanent — but this may be the worst news of all. We know information is easily lost, but we are just beginning to grasp the significance of a world in which some information is as stubbornly persistent as kudzu vines. The result is an emerging constant that I suspect will become a law that we will all one day take for granted: we will lose the information we most wish to preserve, and we will be plagued forever by information we fervently wish to lose.

The MySpace generation is already beginning to discover the complications that come from photos of unguarded moments being splashed across cyberspace. As these teens grow older, they will discover that the most embarrassing photos are likely to prove as persistent as tattoos, and as awkward to explain as a faded teenage tattoo on sagging middle-aged skin.

Of course MySpacers won’t be the only ones hoping certain files disappear even as we collectively struggle to recover cherished information lost in the vastness of cyberspace. Parents will lose treasured baby photos, but when their baby becomes a teen, the teen will promptly discover embarrassing photos of mom on a drunken spring break in Daytona.

The result will be a burgeoning industry of info-sleuths, hit-squads for hire who will hunt down and rub out errant incriminating or just plain embarrassing digital data. Or perhaps a better metaphor is that of a gardener poisoning crabgrass, for you can cut it, burn it or poison it, but eventually it grows back. Don’t just hire the digital hit team — keep them on retainer and maybe they can look for your baby pictures when they aren’t bumping off the data you want disappeared.