It may well be time to hit the big red panic button. Things keep vanishing from the internet, after which they are forgotten forever. There’s no accountability, no culpability; very often, there’s no record of their existence even. It’s just—poof! Collective amnesia.
Last month, Google announced that it would wipe out all accounts that have been inactive for two years. If you haven’t had any activity on your account for a while, it will be killed, starting December this year. For reasons only tech nerds and multi-billionaires can understand.
Now, Google isn’t only your email account where you ping-pong “gentle reminders” back and forth till one person drops dead of inertia. It’s your everything account. Photos, YouTube, address book, travel map, this site, that app—all of it. It could all be junked because of a policy change.
This announcement led to fevered speculation that YouTube, part of the Google family, could be hit too. That would be a genuine disaster. YouTube exists today as a digital library housing what may as well be called vintage art. A precious anachronism. Live videos of famous and un-famous music concerts shot on handheld videotape-cameras from the past many decades. Films, TV shows, iconic advertisements—all in a trembling, comically retro video resolution. In the age of 8K, that stuff is barely 80. Old DVD rips. Conspiracy theory videos of the 1990s-2000s. Banned material. Bootleg albums long out of circulation, surviving today as a living, breathing entity only on the seventh page of a YouTube search, buried under mountains of unrelated garbage. There was a very real fear that these remnants of a forgotten analogue era could disappear. Mercifully, Google soon clarified that “we do not have plans to delete accounts with YouTube videos at this time”. At…this…time.
Google’s decision is alarming for several reasons, one being that it ties into a worrying pattern. Big chunks of our cultural history are being erased. By malice and incompetence both, the transience of the internet is being exploited such that valuable art, essential community material, is disappearing as we speak. Iconic cultural moments, immortal works of art and public service meant to be studied and built upon for decades, now lie at the mercy of tech moguls and their whims. Beyond the tangible, there’s a personal, emotional quotient to this—all this work is of ineffable value and its loss can feel as grave as the burning of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Public Library, and its 97,000 books and manuscripts, or the fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. They may not exist in brick-and-mortar structures but their significance hasn’t diminished.
And this digital repository is vulnerable to attack from so many angles. Our cherished media and art, which defines the world as we know it and as it could be—adding meaning amid disarray—lies at the risk of political manoeuvring. As in the case of Elon Musk engaging in a (one-sided) public feud with The New York Times or NPR because he didn’t agree with their vibe. Often, political satire gets hit with copyright notices by bad actors protecting themselves by exploiting loopholes. The doctrine of “fair use”, fundamental to political commentary in art and satire, comes under threat repeatedly as artists and commentators are slapped with notices and bans. Enough people reporting your posts or videos can mess with the algorithm of hosting platforms, leading to erasure. There are so many fun ways to attack digital content today.
With an evolving society and changing ideals of progressive and social justice, there’s also a necessary—and long overdue—re-examination of existing art that has been celebrated intuitively. Applying that critical lens has its role—to see how it holds up, to deconstruct what value it has today. But what we get, at times, is a preposterous overcorrection. As with Roald Dahl, whose publishers have tried to sanitise the smarmy abrasion of his prose by substituting it with something more palatable. So “fat” becomes “enormous” and “ugly” gets ditched altogether.
It’s important to place in context authors whose work may be considered inappropriate or offensive by modern standards or, very often, by the standards of the time too. But there are ways to tackle this complex matter without needlessly inserting such alterations, essentially sabotaging the essence of the work.
Effectively, we no longer own the art we pay for. We are renters, borrowers, tenants. We pay a fee, and we get access to everything that ever existed, but it comes with a big asterisk. Spotify may provide Indian users with 100 million songs at a price of some ₹100 a month but it’s a temporary arrangement. One that’s fraught with jeopardy. Last year, they sided with Joe Rogan, the abrasive podcaster, leading to rock ‘n’ roll royalty Neil Young removing all his music from the platform on principle. They picked the lucrative option, as you’d expect. But at what cost? Further, 50 million songs (!) on Myspace disappeared overnight in 2019 during a supposed server migration. Years and years of independent music that defined an era, sparked hundreds of movements, gone. Things go away, and then they come back. And then they go away again. But sometimes they never come back.
Google’s decision came a few weeks after Elon Musk, the gazillionaire running Twitter, announced that the social media platform would purge inactive accounts. Twitter has, for better or worse, cemented its position over the past decade as the primary platform for breaking news and analysis. It is the world’s public town square. So even though he has claimed, that the accounts will be archived, there’s still a risk that the legacy content residing on Twitter’s pages will be washed away.
This includes people who have passed on; a document of the lives they led gone forever, loved ones left with broken memories and 404 Page Not Found updates. Memes, templates and jokes that have shaped the nature and formal conventions of modern comedy. The work of journalists who may have drifted away from Twitter. Broken links and articles with missing insets of tweets that are no longer alive. These are important historical documents.
Journalism, much as it may not feel like it at the moment, is a great public service. And it needs to be preserved and protected. We can’t have rich people with vested interests control this trove of public material. In April, Buzzfeed, the latest in a series of media casualties, announced it was shuttering its news division. Buzzfeed did crucial, award-winning work in the digital media space, and its demise is a big loss for the journalism community. Soon, there was a panic among journalists who were rushing to back up their articles, worried that all the blood, sweat and tears poured into investigations that have changed political policy across the world would be lost to the ether yet again.
This is a continual fear for journalists—online publications keep folding and, often, the archives are not saved. The scars of the catastrophic “pivot to video” era from the last decade, shepherded by social media giants and oblivious B-school types, are still fresh. In India too, this remains a recurrent concern. I personally have lost maybe a couple of dozen articles when websites shut down or shifted to new servers. As have most journalists I know. In 2018, as documented in an article in the Caravan, the old archives of Tehelka magazine went missing thanks to a “technical glitch”. Some came back. Every few weeks, a journalist trying to update their resume or build on past work discovers that their work no longer exists. Sometimes it’s actually just a glitch; other times, it feels a touch more deliberate.
One place waging a lonely and valiant battle against this cluster-fudge of bumbling forces is the Internet Archive (IA), an American digital library meticulously backing up the internet for close to 30 years. These guys, advocating a free and open internet, run the Wayback Machine, used to archive and back up every internet page it can possibly reach. Regular users can do this too, sweet relief for archivists and people who value the need for documentation and reportage to preserve modern history. To make sure it’s not erased entirely or, worse, rewritten.
IA has collected millions of books, webpages, audio-visual content, any possible media or data it can get its hands on legally. It also has an open library. Their goal, lofty as it seems, is to digitise every book ever published. Naturally, they are in perpetual defence mode.
Late last month, their website, archive.org, was down temporarily (they speculated that it may have been the result of abusive traffic from an AI company harvesting data, or “maybe just an eager user”). Currently, IA is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by four major book publishers, for copyright infringement and such.
Internet organisations are doing admirable work in this space of preservation and archiving. And there’s also the awkward, ethically murky world of piracy. It may provoke intense debates but it’s illegal for reasons it should be. Yet it offers users a shot at actual permanent ownership of media that my dozens of monthly subscriptions do not. Pirate sites get nuked constantly, and they keep reappearing—it’s a classic case of two worthy adversaries batting heads neither backing down. But that can’t possibly be the solution to all this.
At bleak times like this, the significance of physical media comes into focus from a malformed blob of pixels. The shift to digital media, launched into mainstream consciousness in the early 2000s with the high-profile lawsuit against Napster by major artists and record labels, is welcome in so many ways but the rapid technological advances have run almost in hostile correspondence with greed, morality, and corporate interests. Creators—of content, media, art, anything at all—are being urged to back up all their material locally, on physical computers.
Of course it’s too late now to revert to physical media—I still buy music CDs but that’s a ceremonial act of support and personal affectation—perhaps a more intentional effort is needed now. To effect a deliberate, tactical mistrust of the convenience of internet hosts and the “cloud”. To preserve our culture of dazzling digital ephemera. To safeguard and codify it. To push back against the impermanence of the internet, before it’s too late.
Akhil Sood is a Delhi-based writer.