Raiding Eternity


What pageviews may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil? A beautiful piece of experimental prose by our former colleague Joel Johnson, formerly of Boing Boing Gadgets and now of Gizmodo, about ghosts in the cloud: mortality and connectivity, and how internet permanence might change memory of those who pass, after they're gone. Snip:

Chances are we'll each be lost to time. 100 billion people have been born before us. Most of them no longer exist as individuals in our memories. No names. Faces only reflected in our own and not in any way that really matters.

But not us. We might be remembered forever. All our Twitter updates, our email, our Vimeo movies, our Xbox Live profiles, our wormy FourSquare maps. They won't be important. Not to most people, anyway. But they'll be there if the sysadmins take care of us, if the corporations and machines to whom we've entrusted our records do not fail or are not destroyed.

We won't matter to most. But our memories will be cataloged, indexed, made available along with our stories, our names. $viewcount++.

Raiding Eternity (Gizmodo)


  1. My geocities account didn’t live forever, so I’m pretty sure the rest of this internet fad will disappear sometime after I expire.

  2. Or…

    Poor administration of the records, lasting for perhaps a short a time as a few months, will cause vast amounts of it to be wiped out.


    And that’s not even including malevolent behaviour.

  3. Will our data survive the many disk crashes, old-account purges, hardware upgrades, software upgrades, web format changes, media format changes, and incidents of cybernetic vandalism?

    Will our data survive the inevitable sales, mergers, breakups, off-shorings, and out-and-out failures of the hosting companies, the content managers?

    Will our data survive government censorship?

    Will our data survive a war?

    And even if the answer is yes, to all of these … will anyone be able to find it? Because who cares if our stories survive as unread bits on a mouldering optical platter somewhere?

    If you want to read about the challenges of long-term storage of information, I strongly recommend Stewart Brand’s excellent book “The Clock of the Long Now”. And for anything that truly matters to you — a story you wrote, a love letter you received, a photograph — I have six words of advice:

    Hardcopy backup, on acid-free paper.

    1. Cheqyr,
      I could not have said it better. Although the long term threat is loss of the ability to actually read the language that is printed on the paper.

  4. as for me,i am going to be buried with my laptop,my headstone my wireless connection.i will set up the email to generate auto reply of random items on my hard drive….i will live on for ever……………

  5. As has been pointed out by various sci fi authors, this time is potentially the digital dark ages where the vast amounts of information we currently enjoy could easily be lost for all time. An EMP pulse would do it.
    If you want to get serious about preserving data, then you’ll need to develope granite etching technology. Or something truely radiacal and way over our current technological heads.

  6. Think how many collections of letters from famous writers you’ve seen published as books. I think in this day and age that’s gone.
    I had a writing group on Myspace with some brilliant group prose. Then one guy deleted his account, and all his comments were lost to the ether. I had always planned to back it all up, and give it as a gift to the members, but now none of it makes any sense without those lost comments. I can only console myself with the fact that writers reuse ideas all the time, and nothing was really lost.

  7. The lesson is: the best way to preserve things is not to try. Because only luck (good or bad) actually matters.

    The bodies of the pharoahs rotted while the bodies of the men who built their tombs were perfectly preserved by the desert.

  8. I like how you assume that something that has only really taken off in the last dozen or so years, will last forever.

    Just because bits CAN be immortal, doesn’t mean that they will; how many places is twitter (only a few years old) backed up? Once the crowd moves on and twitter’s money dries up, how many places will replicate their archives?

    And that goes triple for places like Facebook , Netflix, and etc which have privacy restrictions; they can’t just hand out their data once they fold, and nobody’s likely to go to the trouble of winnowing and clearing all that data for release as they’re turning off the lights.

    1. Hard drives are cheaper, bigger, and faster every year. As long as this trend continues I don’t think it’s unrealistic to believe that within a few decades anyone who wants can carry Twitter’s archives in their pocket. The problem of how to get the data in the first place is still there of course, my guess is it will be sold eventually – MySpace is doing this now.

  9. Seriously? You can’t currently retrieve data off of 5.25 inch floppies (let alone 8 inch ones) and 3/4 inch tape is a lost cause. Data stored 40 years ago is gone but data stored 1000 years ago is still largely here. What on Earth makes people think Twitter is going to be accessible in 20 years? We’ll leave aside interesting, since it was never that, but the likelihood is you won’t even be able to read it after we’ve all shifted to holographic storage or whatever the next boffin brainwave is.

    1. Seriously? I have no problem reading 5.25″ floppies, could get an 8″ drive up in a few days, a 3/4″ drive up in a week or two. If it was damaged and had important data, I could send it out to a restoration house. But all that assumes it was dead data on a removable offline storage device. All my data is in active storage backed up twice. Anything on Google’s servers is even more redundant.

      I don’t know about 1,000 years, but neither do you.

    2. “Data stored 40 years ago is gone but data stored 1000 years ago is still largely here.”

      I’d be willing to bet anything that we have many orders of magnitude more data from 1970 alone than from the entirety of 10ad to 1010ad. They didn’t even have printing presses back then.

      Even discounting the burnings of the library of Alexandria and the sacking of the churches and monasteries in England, prettymuch everything written or recorded throughout history is just plain *gone*.

      What’s left… well, that tiny remnant that managed to weather the preceding 960 years has most likely lasted the extra 40 years too. That makes it look as if old stuff is hardy. But what’s left of us in 1000 years will also be the hardiest, non-degradable essences.

  10. I do worry that a nuclear holocaust would knock off at least a decade from the alien archaeologists’ estimation of our smarts. Sure, individual e-mails to mom might survive in some server somewhere. But without the “web” ™ of interactivity, it’s kinda meaningless. This post, for example, is meaningless without prior comments, then meaningless without BB, then meaningless without the story, then meaningless without Giz, then meaningless without the writer, then meaningless without poetry, then meaningless without pine needles on the roof (pines will certainly be extinct). Not necessarily in that order. Everything we do now is relational. E.T’s going to think we’re Prodigy-era chumps, standing on soapboxes instead of each other’s shoulders.

  11. Most people on Earth don’t know anything about Beethoven except his 5th symphony. Let alone his macaroni and cheese habit.

    Honestly: what’s so memorable about our personalities? How are we so different? When I went to college I lived in a dorm with a big library. Most of the authors in the thousand books on the shelves were already nobodies. And they got published on paper.

    Wanna make a difference? Be gentle and kind and helpful and compassionate and forgiving. Blow their minds.

    1. hear hear jphilby! the only thing that matters, that is real, that we should concern ourselves with is the NOW, and our actions in the NOW. if we get that right, everything else will follow like a stream finding its level. worrying about eternity and our legacy and what will be searchable and findable is a distraction that never amounts to anything, and one which we have no control and almost no influence over anyway.

  12. Actually Glenn Gould playing J.S. Bach, and the rest of the information stored on the Voyager spacecraft will survive for awhile (though it remains to be seen if anyone will ever find it).

    As for everything else here, it will get boiled in about a billion years and melted a few billion years after that.

    Nothing lasts forever.

    1. Unless you believe in the theory that the universe doesn’t expand endlessly, then in that case, time will eventually begin to run backward, and everything done will be done again… but in reverse.

      Damn you, Kurzweil! You’ve melted my brain!

  13. My old 5 1/4″ disks are succumbing to bit rot and most of them are no longer readable, even with a working drive. However, I just checked my earliest postings to usenet on Google Groups and they are still there. In the networked era, what people value enough to port over to new systems seems pretty safe.

  14. I’m reminded of this Orson Welles quote from “F is for Fake:
    Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

  15. Some of the comments here seem to be confused about the difference between a copy of data and data itself. The paper on which the Gallic Wars were written is long gone, but the work itself is still here, and would be very hard to destroy save global apocalypse. That’s the model we should take for preserving data – not acid free paper and granite etchings.

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