A few weeks ago, a link was doing the rounds on Twitter, enabling you to see your timeline back as it would have looked in 2008. This produced much exclaiming at the strange naive flatness of it all: because back then everything wasn’t always hyperreferential and simultaneously a meme, an in-joke and a subtweet. Instead, there was quite a lot of actually telling people what you were doing right now.
“”Bits”, digital ones and zeros, are not numbers or Platonic abstractions. They are physically real and subject to entropy, just like leaky plumbing. Bits are electrons moving through circuits, or photons in a fibre-optic pipe. Bits are laser burn marks in plastic, or iron filings stuck together with tape. Those are the weird stopgaps that we are using for heritage.
The digital computer is about as old as I am yet it does not have, and has never had, any archival medium”
— ‘Delete Our Cultural Heritage’, Bruce Sterling, The Telegraph, 12 June 2004
Every digital storage medium decays. Solid-state drives & flash memory see electrical charges leak away due to imperfect insulation. Hard drives & floppy disks are magnetic media, and thereby decay as bits lose their magnetic orientation. CDs & DVDs are made of polycarbonate plastic with thin coatings of aluminium and acrylic, which may break down, the alumninium oxidise. Old-school paper media, punchcards & punch tape, may quite literally rot — or also get eaten by things.
So these micro-links haven’t turned to dust quite yet — surprisingly enough. But give them another decade and will any of them still work? Will the Internet Archive go to the efforts of collecting and preserving them, perhaps? Or will they rot — and the Twitter archive be rendered obscure again, as all the links, already un-clickable, become just another bunch of nonsense syllables?
100 days, said Rick Weiss in The Washington Post in 2003 — though the article, ‘On the Web, Research Work Proves Ephemeral’ is, itself, no longer available. So I hear from other sources, anyway — for me that Washington Post link redirects to a subscription paywall and a GDPR consent form; that is to say, business models also render links inaccessible, too, too.
Websites don’t just close, or get abandoned — they’re also deliberately killed.