Blog Post

Digital Archives: Who has Control?

This past summer the main aspect of my job, aside from mundane work, was archiving old paper purchase orders. I would enter them into a system created by the company and then pack them in a box, and off they went to a warehouse to sit. (I would often sit at my desk day dreaming that the boxes were being carted to the back of a giant warehouse much like in Indiana Jones. Hey! How else is an intern supposed to pass the time?) I probably archived several hundred to over a thousand purchase orders and, of course, mistakes were made. I may have got a number wrong, or filed something in the wrong place - minor problems that could have somewhat problematic consequences. There was a filter system though as I sent the boxes first to a feloow employee to double check my work. The process got me thinking a major aspects of archiving: who has control over the archives, especially in the digital age?

Look at the vast bits of information: defunct webpages, minor wikipedia entries, those drunken Facebook statuses, that failed Reddit post, pictures of cats... there is so much information to digest. What gets saved? It is my personal belief that the digital age allows us to store (and because of Moore's Law, will allow) almost an inifinite amount of information. Gone are the days when archvisits had to throw away precious writings or artefacts because there was simply no space. Space-time is warped... we can keep everything. And there are those who ask, well how can we go through it all? Is there even a point to keeping it? New tools like text analysis and various others allow us to sort through vast amounts of information. We are in the greatest technological age humankind has ever seen.

There are online efforts like Project Gutenberg or Google Books that scans and makes available arrays of literature from ages past. But there are also current efforts to store information created for and on the internet. The Internet Archive stores a seeming infinite amount of information to make available. The most astounding fact of it all is that I can sit here in my living room, with a coffee, listen to music, and access knowledge from the beginning of man's documentation to today's latest story all at the stroke of a key. And then to go on my merry way outside into the very world and interact with those who create such information. It truly is amazing to realize that you create knowledge for current and future scholars, trained or untrained, and aid in the  exponential progression of humankind. 

Therefore this is not only thankful pride in human technological and scientious endeavour but a warning. Space will always be the final frontier, but the internet and digital access is humanity's freest frontier only second to the mind. It must remain open and free. Knowledge should not cost money. Files should be shared, whether music, books, films, journal articles, games, etc. - human experience and understanding, education, should remain a right, even if it is one contrived by humans. 

Science was that first field that made it a point to be free from authority, inherited truths, etc. It is the most objective study and method  known to humankind. It created a sentiment of openness and culture of rigorous critical thinking. It percolated through all human knowledge and its affects are in the free society we live in. It created the great technologies that allow humankind to prosper. We are responsible for this knowledge. Certain laws like SOPA and PIPA or ACTA in Europe seek to restrict the internet. Past generations protested from speech, to written word, to print news and books, to radio, to television, and now to the internet. It is the frontier we must keep free at all costs.

Progress, it should be noted, is not perfect - we often unfortunately realize our mistakes in retrospect. But the best we can do is ensure that future generations have an open frontier. 


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