Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


creativity & tech 5 min read

I’ve been thinking lately about digital permanence, or rather the lack of it. The internet offers us an opportunity to preserve our work for future generations like never before, but we haven’t made much progress on providing frameworks and services that will allow us to do so.

We’ve all lost old files (or new ones). I’ve had web sites that are now completely gone from the internet. I have years of chat logs that are locked up in formats I can no longer read. I even have boxes of Zip and floppy disks somewhere, as well as aged recordable CDs that probably aren’t faring too well. That’s the reality of digital data: sometimes it degrades, but usually the technological ecosystem moves on around it, leaving it isolated and inaccessible.

There are common file formats, of course. Plain text presents few worries (encodings and line-endings are some of those worries, but they’re surmountable), and most web-suitable image formats are going to be readable for many years to come. For movies, formats come and go, but we can usually convert between them. We don’t have much to worry about within the five-year timespan.

But what about ten years from now? Or twenty?

What about the distant day when you take your final breath?

It’s a morbid thought, yes. But most of us aren’t prepared, and we won’t do much more than make a will, deciding who gets our material possessions. Our work will then probably vanish, unless we have the good fortune to have considerable success or fame at some point. That’s for a tiny minority, and it’s a hell of a gamble.

Our work, whatever it may be, should be preserved. A person’s creative output has unique value, and is worthy of the attention of future generations - and at least to be available for inspection. Our global computer network can potentially allow us to leave behind a universal artistic legacy that’s unprecedented in human history. I think that’s worth some thought.

The goal

I’d like to create a permanent digital record of my work, that will outlive me, and ensure my work is always available to others. It’s a simple enough idea.

Let me just pre-empt a couple of suggestions:

  • The Wayback Machine is interesting and maybe even useful, but it’s a time machine for web pages rather than an actual data vault.

  • I have real trouble choosing a Creative Commons license. I don’t want to permit anything except fair-use extracts of my writing while I’m alive and working. And in any case, that’s just a license, not a solution.

I believe absolutely in a creator’s right to derive financial and other benefits from their work, for a reasonable length of time - let’s say their own lifespan, or perhaps somewhat less. I think that several decades from the date of creation, or until death (whichever is shorter) is a reasonable policy. But I digress.

I really wish that there were more long-term solutions, or at least long-term thinking about this. I’d like to be able to buy, for example, web hosting for years in advance, with a clause that they must keep everything available on a new host even if their own business vanishes. That’s probably impossible, and would be prohibitively expensive (it’d also have to carry that same obligation to the new host too). But there are some smaller-scale things that we can surely do.

I’d like the option in my social media (and indeed any online) accounts to specify someone to bequeath those accounts to, so at least the data can be accessed and downloaded. Google already lets you do this, with their Inactive Account Manager feature, which I’ve set up recently.

I’d like my online accounts to offer a secondary login, that only takes control once the primary account holder is marked as deceased, with suitable proof supplied. Facebook lets you memorialise a page, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Ideally, I’d like someone - probably at government level or higher - to set up a long-term document foundation for citizens, where we can submit our data for preservation. Log in with your government-issued ID, and have your own silo of future public works that you can update whenever you like. After expiry of copyright and/or a fixed term (or upon death), the work would then be added to a global replicated archive that was accessible to anyone on the planet. That’d be fantastic.

And it’ll probably happen, but it’s not here yet. In the interim, we shouldn’t be sitting around idly waiting for someone else to solve the problem.

What you can do

There are a number of common-sense actions you can take to help ensure your digital legacy:

  1. Take data exports from your chosen publishing services regularly (and don’t use services that don’t offer such exports). Twitter lets you do this, amongst others.

  2. Keep backups (multiple ones, with at least one off-site), and test them regularly.

  3. Choose your file formats carefully. You want something that’s most likely to be readable in the distant future. That means simple, portable, elementary formats.

  4. Choose your storage media formats carefully. Lowest common denominator disk formats, standard compression systems, and ubiquitous physical media. You’ll also have to periodically move everything to the new industry standards, as the old ones fall from favour.

  5. Re-evaluate your policies every few years. Try to stay aware of your options.

  6. Set things up so it’s easy for someone to republish your work after you’ve died. Leave instructions on how to do it, and what to do. Find trusted people to take charge of your digital legacy, and keep them informed.

Above all, ensure that your loved ones and trusted friends are aware of your wishes. And don’t wait; start now.

My pledge

I’m going to continue to think about this, and to actively seek better preservation methods. In the meantime, I’m making a pledge - to you, dear reader, to myself, and to the internet-using population in general.

  1. I will keep this site’s permalinks stable, wherever possible.

  2. I will keep this domain active for as long as possible.

  3. I will keep good backups of my work, in multiple locations.

  4. I will store my raw work in portable file formats.

  5. I will put in place, and regularly review, a plan to allow my work to remain available in perpetuity.

  6. I will ensure that (at the latest), upon whichever is the later of my death or that of my wife, my body of work will be released under such a license as to allow full, non-derivative reproduction elsewhere (with attribution).

I also pledge to re-assess this plan as I continue to live my life, as you’d expect.

I’m not going to claim that my own creative output has any more value than anyone else’s, nor that it’s ‘worthwhile’ in any particular sense. But it’s mine, and it’s thus unique. I think that it’s worth preserving, if only because this particular consciousness - this person - will never exist again. Your work has every bit as much value, and deserves similar preservation.

I’ll leave it up to future generations to judge my words and works as they see fit, and I accept their judgement. I’ll do my utmost to ensure they have the opportunity to do so.

And until then, of course, I pledge to continue to work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You can follow me on Twitter to keep up to date with articles like this.

My writing is supported by readers like you. Any contribution helps enormously.