The Internet Is Only Permanent When You Don’t Want It to Be
Why everything is online forever. Except when it’s not.
At university, one of my supervisors had a book of Sappho’s poetry on his desk. In her heyday, Sappho was considered the greatest poet of all time and was nicknamed “the Tenth Muse,” the 7th-century BC equivalent of calling Bruce Springsteen “the Boss.” Most of Sappho’s works have been lost. All that is left of one poem are the words “thought” and “barefoot.” Another page in my supervisor’s book was just the single word “lady.” For my part, I struggled to get much from these. Maybe you needed to read them in the original Greek.
Sappho isn’t the only poet whose works have been lost along the way. Poems by Chaucer have gone AWOL, and maybe a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, too. Even in the 20th century, the BBC reused videotape, wiping episodes of Dad’s Army and Doctor Who. NASA managed to lose the tape masters of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. As a species, we’re not very good at holding on to data.
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But with the internet, we once thought, all that would change. The world’s information would be protected for posterity. So, if a future scholar of the 21st century wanted to watch, say, an episode of NBC’s reality show Momma’s Boys, it would be ready and waiting. They wouldn’t be able to read Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Won, but at least they’d know if Robert Kluge’s mum found him a girlfriend.
It’s partly true that everything is online forever and partly a collective delusion.
In fact, the issue with the internet was that it would save things you didn’t want it to. As soon as you clicked “submit,” data would be replicated across servers around the world. Embarrassing photos, ill-timed jokes, drunken messages. Beware what you type, because once it was in the wild, it would be there forever.
But for something that renders information impossible to delete, it has turned out that I do lose a…