At Root an Evanescence

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

—Emily Dickinson
(via The Poetry Foundation)

While that poem is apparently about a hummingbird, it’s the one that comes first to my mind when I contemplate the form of evanescence that’s rooted in the nature of the Internet, where all of us are here right now, as I’m writing and you’re reading this.

Because, let’s face it: the Internet is no more about anything “on” it than air is about noise, speech or anything at all. Like air, sunlight, gravity and other useful graces of nature, the Internet is good for whatever can be done with it.

Same with the Web. While the Web was born as a way to share documents at a distance (via the Internet), it was never a library, even though we borrowed the language of real estate and publishing (domains and sites with pages one could author, edit, publish, syndicate, visit and browse) to describe it. While the metaphorical framing in all those words suggests durability and permanence, they belie the inherently evanescent nature of all we call content.

Think about the words memorystorageupload, and download. All suggest that content in digital form has substance at least resembling the physical kind. But it doesn’t. It’s a representation, in a pattern of ones and zeros, recorded on a medium for as long the responsible party wishes to keep it there, or the medium survives. All those states are volatile, and none guarantee that those ones and zeroes will last.

I’ve been producing digital content for the Web since the early 90s, and for much of that time I was lulled into thinking of the digital tech as something at least possibly permanent. But then my son Allen pointed out a distinction between the static Web of purposefully durable content and what he called the live Web. That was in 2003, when blogs were just beginning to become a thing. Since then the live Web has become the main Web, and people have come to see content as writing or projections on a World Wide Whiteboard. Tweets, shares, shots and posts are mostly of momentary value. Snapchat succeeded as a whiteboard where people could share “moments” that erased themselves after one view. (It does much more now, but evanescence remains its root.)

But, being both (relatively) old and (seriously) old-school about saving stuff that matters, I’ve been especially concerned with how we can archive, curate and preserve as much as possible of what’s produced for the digital world.

Last week, for example, I was involved in the effort to return Linux Journal to the Web’s shelves. (The magazine and site, which lived from April 1994 to August 2019, was briefly down, and with it all my own writing there, going back to 1996. That corpus is about a third of my writing in the published world.) Earlier, when it looked like Flickr might go down, I worried aloud about what would become of my many-dozen-thousand photos there. SmugMug saved it (Yay!); but there is no guarantee that any Website will persist forever, in any form. In fact, the way to bet is on the mortality of everything there. (Perspective: earlier today, over at doc.blog, I posted a brief think piece about the mortality of our planet, and the youth of the Universe.)

But the evanescent nature of digital memory shouldn’t stop us from thinking about how to take better care of what of the Net and the Web we wish to see remembered for the world. This is why it’s good to be in conversation on the topic with Brewster Kahle (of archive.org), Dave Winer and other like-minded folk. I welcome your thoughts as well.

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