In 2007, TreeHugger became part of Discovery Communications and I started writing for their new website, Planet Green. As the Great Recession kicked in, I concentrated on writing about frugal green living, and over the next four years wrote about 1,000 posts; my wife, Kelly Rossiter, wrote a post a day about food, frugal eating, how to start a pantry; her stuff was really wonderful. It would all be relevant today on MNN, where TreeHugger landed three years ago, and I would love to publish it there, but it’s gone — lost when they pulled the plug on the Planet Green network. Kelly is still upset over what was lost.
So much of what is written today — in fact anything that's published on the Internet — might well suffer the same fate. If a company as big and successful as Discovery Communications doesn’t see the value in paying for a backup for archival reasons, who would?
Over at Metropolis magazine, the wonderful editor Susan Szenasy is dealing with this issue as they move to a new office. She writes in her editorial on Preserving Paper, about the fate of non-digital archives:
Prior to our move, massive amounts of paper from files, as well as magazines and books, went to be recycled. This industrial process was an efficient one. Large plastic bins on wheels were filled with all manner of papers, including the posters I once fondly taped to my door and wall. A truck parked downstairs ground up the content of a dozen bins in a matter of minutes. All that we once thought important, all that recorded knowledge, is gone — trash.
I know this feeling well. After I closed my architectural practice, I stored all of my drawings (most done by hand back then, or printed out if digital) in an expensive locker for 15 years, thinking they had value to clients, to archives, to history. Tired of paying $150 a month for storage, I called the shredder people and the drawings were all turned into mylar fluff, gone in about 20 minutes, 10 years of my life as an architect. (The buildings themselves are not far behind in the real estate frenzy that is Toronto.)
Susan asks: “All this trash makes me wonder — in our mad dash into the digital world, what happens to our nondigital history?” I worry more about our digital history. I have almost no photos of my kids in their teenage years. Being an early adopter, I took all my photos at 640 x 480 on the first Olympus digital camera, saved the digital photos on a CD that I cannot find and even if I could, I wouldn't be able to play it on my current computers. The few printouts I did have are all fading to nothingness, like this one of my daughter, about the only photo I have of her from this era.
I also was one of the earliest adopters of computer-aided design, designing buildings on 8 Mz IBM AT clones and storing data on 5-1/4 floppy disks. I once tried to retrieve a drawing that was done in about 1989. What a task: I had to find a computer with the big drive, go through about 12 upgrades of the CAD software, and the results I got were so distorted I could only save them as a sort of art project. Susan wonders “Who will invest in archiving the less exciting but still essential physical record of the work it took to build a solid foundation for our professional practices?” I have no idea; I know mine is lost, both paper and digital.
After thinking about this issue, I've taken to doing all my writing of posts for MNN and TreeHugger offline in a word processor and saving them for posterity, but of course I do this on the iCloud, that big storage locker in the sky. I suppose that some day, I won’t make the monthly payment, my kids won’t know the password or maybe not care about it, and there will be a digital version of "Storage Wars" where they try and sell the contents of my locker and if that doesn’t work, dump it out into the virtual street.
After Kelly’s mother died, she found a pile of photo albums full of family photos of distant cousins. She had no idea why her mother would have had them, but she called up her second cousins and arranged to give them the albums. The 90-year-old matriarch of the family had never seen these photos, everybody cried as she described who everyone was in this treasure trove of family history that somehow ended up in my mother-in-law’s basement. However, they were found, they were returned to their family, and they are now treasured. What will happen if Yahoo! turns off Flickr or Google gives up on Photo? Will we have any record of our families, our history, our work, our accomplishments?
I cannot help but wonder whether historians of the 22nd century won’t have a very big hole of missing information starting around the beginning of the 21st.