Once upon a time not so long ago we relied upon books as our information storage media. Those rectangular bundles of paper and ink were fragile and ephemeral. But in comparison to today’s digital media, they were etched in granite. Even when formidable powers-that-be expended considerable energy to erase them from existence, it was often still impossible to completely confiscate and destroy every copy in every library and every home. The precious knowledge they held often survived.
Today however, knowledge can be instantly erased with a single press of a button located on an Internet server sitting in some undisclosed location somewhere on the World Wide Web. Certainly the things we see done in movies is pure Hollywood fiction. No one can just hit a button and magically erase all trace of your existence from all computers in the world. We have redundancy and not all of those redundant systems would be accessible by such a purge. And even if some super virus could crawl through every server everywhere deleting all trace of us, there are still backups.
But our information is incredibly fragile nonetheless. If and when the people hosting servers find that it is insufficiently profitable to continue to store and provide access to the information, it is wiped without nary any effort at all. Even if data is hosted by dedicated enthusiasts, they go bankrupt or die or move on. The reality is that despite redundancy and backups, any information located in or accessed through the cloud can simply go poof at any time.
Yes individuals or institutions may have copies of files. But we lose our local files all the time. We accidently delete them, our drive fails, or the software that accessed them becomes obsolete. And because local storage is so fragile, it is becoming increasingly rare to store anything locally. More and more we are relying data hosted “securely” in the cloud. And, like a real cloud, that information can simply evaporate at any time.
This isn’t a theoretical worry. It happens all the time. Here’s just one case study. In 1999, the online gaming universe of Everquest was released. By 2004, there were nearly a half million part-time residents living in the world of Norrath. They filled the Internet with thousands of informational sites, huge databases of information, and literal volumes full of essential stuff. But after a few years, other lands like the World of Warcraft lured players away. When the Everquest player base dropped off, ad revenue to these sites dropped off as well. When it did, their hosting servers disappeared one by one in rapid succession. Today although many still play Everquest, much of that valuable information is simply gone. In 2004 one would have assumed all that knowledge was carved in stone, enshrined forever in the Internet, eternally available whenever it might be called upon once more by new players or gaming historians. One would have been wrong. All of that information went poof, lost, gone without so much as the warm glow of a book-burning.
You may not care that the walkthroughs, guides, lore, and history documenting the Everquest world are essentially lost to us already. Just as others will probably not care about whatever particular body of knowledge you hold dear. But if we don’t care about all knowledge then no knowledge is secure.
This one case study illustrates the fragility of all information in our Internet-based information age. Yes, there is SO much information out there, but at the same time it is no more enduring than a soap bubble floating on the wind. It can all disappear into thin air just as quickly. The solid permanence of the Internet is illusory.
Consider what this warns us about more important bodies of knowledge like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is arguably the most ambitious and successful accumulation and redistribution of knowledge in the history of mankind. It is a triumph of the Internet Age every bit as marvelous as the Great Library of Alexandria was during the Classical Age.
Yet, like Everquest lore, Wikipedia could disappear in a moment. All it would take is the flip of a switch. This could happen for many reasons. Their resources could dry up or their core team could simply grow old and weary of the effort. If and when this happens, the collective efforts of thousands upon thousands of expert contributors could simply vanish. Poof. This unprecedented compendium of the collective knowledge of mankind could be gone in a wink.
But even more frightening would be if Wikipedia did not simply disappear but was rather corrupted to live on as an unholy shadow of itself. It could be acquired and corrupted and commercialized by a self-interested corporation. It could be censored or even shut down by paranoid politicians. If that were to happen, and it easily could, it would be worse than dead and gone, it would become a tool of profit or propaganda.
As they say “knowledge is power” and the Internet is the portal through which all knowledge now flows. And one does not even need to control sources of information like Wikipedia anymore. They can simply take control of the doors through which information is accessed. Our fragile information age offers that almost irresistible opportunity to control knowledge, to take power. China, UAE, and other countries work to police and censor their doorways to the Internet. The United States struggles against power political and corporate forces that would like to take control of the Internet for financial gain or ideology. Donald Trump just recently talked about how he as President would take control of the Internet. Companies vie and maneuver constantly to take control of the doors to knowledge (and profit) in the Information Age.
This would be unimaginably easy. Those who would control information don’t need to rewrite or censor every web page on the Internet. Rather if they control the supply lines, they can simply switch on software filters or real-time automated editors that can automatically blot out competing information insert alternative viewpoints as easily as they can filter out pornography or spam. The doormen don’t even need to block sites since they can simply drop them down in search engine results until few will ever find them. Even worse, they don’t need to even block or restrict access. Using the justification of protecting us against “dangerous material” they can gain the authority to modify the text, to redact or insert key information without leaving any trace that the source material had been modified.
If that knowledge were still printed in physical books, those who wish to rewrite history would leave traces of their censorship by marking out text or ripping out pages. We could at least tell changes were made. We have no such guarantees or indications when it comes to any information we receive in our browser.
If we don’t understand this, if we fail to protect the integrity of data flowing through the Internet, we not only risk losing it all, but we risk becoming, each and every one of us personally, the helpless targets of corporate greed and political propaganda. Our great information age could be corrupted overnight into a new Dark Age. During the last Dark Age the Catholic Church seized control of all knowledge and became the sole arbiters of what would be communicated and how. They would find the control of information infinitely easier today in our Information Age.
We must not let information become just another disposable, devalued, manipulated commodity in a throw-away culture. Our digital information is both a great asset and a great risk.