Thursday, March 01, 2007 by Dave Winer.
No one really likes to think about dying, but it comes for everyone, eventually, and if you're living a creative life, as so many of us are these days, maybe you'd like your creations to live at least a little bit longer than you do? Look at it another way, suppose there's a James Thurber, Mark Twain or Truman Capote or George Harrison among us, wouldn't that person likely be creating on the web, and shouldn't their work last longer than their own lives?
A few months ago, I decided to start learning about this, I realized that if I were to die now, my web presence might last a month or two, but probably not much longer. Part of my life consists of watching the servers, rebooting them as necessary, clearing out folders containing backups, all kinds of maintenence that my heirs wouldn't know how to do, and probably wouldn't want to do. If I want these things to last, I realized, I would have to invest to future-proof the content, as best as I can.
Now my work is probably a bit more fragile than most people's, you may store your blog at Blogger or LiveJournal, where other people are doing the maintenence, but if you read the user agreement covering your site, what responsibility do they have to keep your site running? You might lose everything, even while you're alive, and have no legal recourse. I store movies at blip.tv and pictures at Flickr. They sure are convenient, but how do I know they'll exist in two years or ten? It seems a long shot that they'll be there in 50 or 100 years.
Then there's archive.org, which is a very great service, and a good backstop against the failure of our frail systems, but it doesn't do enough, though it's pretty close. I'd like there to be a way for me to actually map the domains they're archiving to point into their space, so links into my domain wouldn't break if we had to rely on their backup. In that case, there might be a part of my will where I leave $100 to archive.org or $1000, to do the domain transfers it would take so that the links into my sites won't break. As far as I know they don't now offer such a service, so it would be virtually impossible for me to request it in my will.
Another question -- is archive.org permanent enough to trust with the backups? Over what period of time? Am I willing to accept the limit, that after my demise, my work will live as long as archive.org? I'd rather put my faith in a more long-lived entity. At a breakout session at the Beyond Broadcast conference with Harvard professor and mentor Charlie Nesson, he suggested perhaps Mount Auburn cemetery might be permanent enough. Interestingly I had thought of Mount Auburn, but I said that I would prefer if Harvard, a university that's been around since 1636, were to sponsor this service, perhaps in conjunction with its vast and highly respected library. Harvard, partnering with archive.org, now that's beginning to sound like something a lot of people would trust with their intellectual and creative legacy.
In fact, I'd propose that this would be a venture that Amazon, with their excellent S3 service, that's become so popular with developers, may wish to lend its good name to as well. And Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Sun, the EFF, Stanford, Larry Lessig, you name it, the more organizations and trustworthy people helping the better. I'd like to encourage archive.org to implement the same API as S3, and I'd like to encourage Amazon to let them. If there's any stickiness, let's get everyone in a room with Charlie, whose such a pleasure to listen to, it's hard to imagine anyone saying no to him!
At breakfast this morning, Jeff Ubois, who has made this area his life's work, noted that it seems a lot of people are thinking about this now. Indeed, they are. There are some huge ideas here. Why now? Well, after almost ten years of blogging, there might be something worth preserving. Being 51, and having survived a life-threatening illness at 47 makes me aware that there's no time like now. I'm already caring for the archive of my uncle who passed in 2003. What will become of his blog when I pass? To have it disappear then is simply not acceptable. And as a software developer, I want to be sure I have answers for less technical people, for the Dostoyevsky or Huxley among us, for the Picasso or Chagall, for the Ives, Copland and Berlioz. We believe digital is better, but how will people know how we lived two or three generations from now? That's a problem I want to work on.