An End to Permanence?

WordPress informs me that 2,831 posted entries on this blog are presently “Uncategorized.” If I possessed some tremendous treasure trove of expendable income — for time, as we all know, is the only commodity presently tradeable among regular people — I might very well sort through these entries and eventually finish the long duty of corralling these stray textual swine to their taxonomic holding pens. But, even assuming that these entries were feral animals deserving of such virtual domestication, a position that is highly questionable, the journey wouldn’t end there. One sifts through these past posts knowing that the links are, in most cases, invalid and therefore useless to anyone hoping to follow a thread or pursue a path to knowledge. The Wayback Machine only takes us so far. It was fond of taking snippets of websites every six weeks or so in the early noughts. There are, for example, eight snapshots of this website as it existed in 2001. And I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: (1) the needless braying of a young man in his mid-twenties confessing his failings with women and his predictable liberal leanings or (2) the fact that the “archived” site didn’t correctly extract the code, causing one 2001 “snapshot” of this website to crash within Firefox’s most recent iteration.

Such past peregrinations perhaps place an undue importance on what I wrote at a particular time. I read my own thoughts and feelings and wonder who the hell this guy is and why so many people believed in my bullshit at the time. There is a temptation to kill the early entries that are even now still publicly available on this domain. (Indeed, when Return of the Reluctant — as this site was then called — “returned” in December 2003, it did so with the proviso that everything written before that time never happened. The impulse to destroy one’s own work is so casually cavalier!) Some of those entries are locatable on my hard drives, but I wasn’t nearly as precise with my archiving and backups as I might have been. So how many thousands of words have been lost forever? Half a decade later, I’m not sure that I would approve of my extirpating twentysomething self. And there are likewise entries written by me even three years ago which I presently do not approve of. But I now find myself required to preserve everything — the posts, the comments (even the nasty ones), et al. But let’s say that I were to be killed by a car tomorrow. Would anybody even bother to preserve this website? Would any of this website be preserved? Would it even be worth preserving? Maybe I will indeed puff up and die, as The Anthologist‘s Paul Chowder suggests.

Even some of the data recorded on third-party sites and featured on these pages, such as the now-defunct AudBlog, is not recoverable. While I became better at using common data formats and hosting the content on these pages over the years, I have proven, like many people creating things on the Internet, exceptionally optimistic that many websites will stick around. If YouTube were to somehow fold tomorrow, then numerous embedded videos — a number of which reflect my own creative efforts — would be as useless as the few 5 1/4″ diskettes I still have in a file cabinet containing thoughts, essays, and writings from twenty years ago. It’s probably all juvenalia. But maybe there’s some vital thought or feeling in there that I wasn’t quite ready to take on.

William T. Vollmann has amusingly styled websites as “a particularly hated category” in his endnotes for Imperial. I believe his enmity to originate largely from the lack of permanence, our common failure to note a set of thoughts and feelings expressed at a particular point in time. We’re not just talking about preserving words. There’s also a type of moderation that goes over the line. There are at least six websites that I have stopped visiting — a number of them that boast of being “civilized” places — because their immature proprietors saw fit to delete my critical but by no means trollish comments. Some thoughts are better left unspoken or censored. How many uncomfortable truths are lost to tomorrow’s historians because of these knee-jerk impulses?

At the risk of echoing bigoted reactionaries like Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, and (soon) John Freeman, there remains a double-edged sword. How many of our immediate thoughts should be loosened from our minds? I must again applaud Twitter for ratcheting up the speed and limiting the number of characters, thereby solving several expressive problems. My stupid thoughts and immediate expressive impulses now have a home there, for better or worse. And these ostensible “blog entries” have transmuted from ephemeral roundups into lengthy essays. But who am I to judge the quality? Historically speaking, people have been less interested in what I often spend several hours writing and researching and have been decidedly more intrigued with something I’ve assembled in 20 minutes. (The problem, incidentally, isn’t limited to blogs. John Banville has recently raised his objections to such perceived apartheid.) Perhaps the “rushed” writing is better. (For any stopwatch enthusiasts in the peanut gallery, I have now spent about 75 minutes writing this post.) Or perhaps we can only make distinctions based on the temporal commodity observed at the onset of this essay.

Perhaps this is too much introspection. My own thoughts on these very important issues may not mean anything to you. But at least I have the solace of knowing precisely how I felt on the subject on August 3, 2009. It is very probable that I will feel differently in a few hours. The text here may not be permanent, but I am doing my best to pretend that I am throwing a packed bottle into a sea. Should I change my mind later in the week, I will certainly do my best to note it. Such “journalism” may be the only way to mimic textual permanence. But no matter what the form, it remains our duty to preserve. Human minds and hearts change, but if we hope to witness these magical developments, then we must do better.

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  1. Interesting and difficult issues – especially your considerations re deleting old writings. Author William Golding bought and burnt any copies of his juvenalia poetry (published against his will). So rare as to be worth a fortune, he continued his poetic pogrom all his life. Did he get them all?

    I’d stand against this book burning, but Milan Kundera argues in Testaments Betrayed that Max Brod betrayed Kafka by publishing (certain pieces of) his works after his death, rather than destroying them as requested by the author. Which, as an occasional writer, I can sympathise with in some part.

    The web though, is a different canvas. I’d retain your early posts. If there is work there now you find unbearable, I’d criticise it in a new post (if it didn’t feel too narcissistic to do so). The older you in conversation with the younger. It might be an interesting exercise.

    Nor should you fear falling into a camp with the likes of Keen or Siegel; their views are challenging a popular, fast moving assumption with often broad derisive strokes, but they can fuel debate around a subject worthy of such discussion despite what Lee Siegel wrote yesterday on the BBC Digital Revolution blog questioning whether the documentary about the web needed to exist at all as the web is ‘an ultimately pedestrian technology that has been around for two decades’.

    Disclosure: I am producing the BBC Digital Revolution blog. I’m not here to spam. We want to engage across the web in the hope that people will share their stories with us, discuss the web and the ‘revolution’ it may or may not have created (Lee Siegel, as you will see, clearly thinks not!)

    Many thanks,

  2. […] As Simon Owens recently observed, — a service that shortened URLs — is now gone. The links that it once helpfully compressed are now useless. For those who may have passed on a link to a pal, tweeted a particularly helpful article, or otherwise stopped an unruly URL from breaking in two because of a monitor’s constraining width, this metadata means nothing. How long will it be before all the other URL shortening services are about as valuable as a maniac with a fetish for smearing Crisco on random monitors or some sad and anonymous man who wastes his entire weekend on the Internet pretending to be somebody else on Twitter? Twhirl, the Adobe AIR app aiding folks in posting silly thoughts and links to Twitter, presents us with,,,, and as link-shortening options, all desperately needed if anyone expects to use the 140 character limit. But will these shorteners even exist in six months? Shouldn’t the mad scientists at Twitter come up with an in-house standard to ensure some longevity? (All this, of course, assumes that our tweets, or anything we put online, is even permanent — a subject I rambled at length about last week.) […]

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