The Fragility of Information

2020-12-18

It’s truly amazing how far our species has gone in recording information. From clay tablets to various forms of papers and binding methods, and on to modern means like tape. We’ve conceived a multitude of different systems to preserve that information, but all of them share the same weakness:

Time.

Nothing is eternal, much as you’d like to believe otherwise. Everything will come to end one day, but entropy and the existential crisis of finality are not so much our subject here. To be more clear, I’m going to talk about digital information. It has a great many advantages over physical systems, particularly in the possibility of infinite copies, and those spread across a plethora of machines. As long as the drives don’t fail, the data is more safe than, say, a book, which can be destroyed in more ways than can be counted.

As noted above, however, this isn’t foolproof. Drives can fail. Magnetic and optical storage mediums can degrade, and are best kept in climate controlled conditions for longevity. Data corruption, damage, bitrot, and, truthfully, much of what can destroy a bound book. We all live with this reality that we can lose all of our data in the blink of an eye. It happens much more often than we’d care to admit, too, in order to assure ourselves. This is further exacerbated by how tightly controlled and proprietary the internet is, creating an over reliance on the supposed goodwill of corporate entities and the reliability of their infrastructures.

Despite what they might wish you to believe, they too are not infallible.

This brings us to what I consider to be the worst form of information loss: purposeful destruction. There are few things more callous than the knowing action of eradicating knowledge, especially in our digital age. That is our history, and it is being actively cast aside in order to push forward to the next profitable venture. This is why efforts such as the Internet Archive and Wayback Machine are paramount to preserving history, and projects like emulators in general. Companies would most often rather see these things cast aside entirely, and/or be resurfaced decades later to be profited upon again.

Take, for vague example, games from decades past being released again. More likely than not, they can emulated to much greater effect than any official offering, and for free. Putting aside the legal discussions surrounding emulation, immediate logic dictates it the better option. Yet, through some effort of marketing, convenience, and falling prey to the heavily exploited nostalgia, people will pay for the lesser option. There is certainly something to be said for the comparison between it just works™ and fully featured with assembly required, but equally so is there something just asinine about the situation.

Even if it is not monetarily motivated in the first degree, data is also susceptible to the trials and tribulations of being human. Mistakes. A lack of experience. Shortsighted attempts to erase the past. Most, if not all of us can regale such a tale, and its effects from that moment onward. A recent example for myself was an author I’ve enjoyed for nearly five years now. He published an original novel based on his earlier writing recently. While, on paper, that sounds like an amazing step forward for a fic writer, it came at a cost for his fanbase. The past seven years of his writing- well over a million words- are gone. To avoid potential “legal issues,” he deleted everything in the series being adapted.

I’m not without understanding here, but I also cannot help but think that nuking a series he’d spent years on and garnered a fanbase for was a very brash move. Can us fans simply purchase the new rendition as it’s released and finally be given the ending he could never grant the story as fanfiction? Sure, I guess, but what of that past now revoked? It ceased to be just his story the moment he started posting it online, and, truly, it was one of the greatest fan creations of this particular fandom. Perhaps I should be supportive of his progression as an author, or maybe there were legal issues on the horizon, but it stings, and it’s a pain that’s not wholly uncommon. He’s only the next in a long line of writers that, for one reason or another, removed their work from the internet. A cycle continued, which is hilariously ironic.

As a parting blow, another game in this particular franchise was announced at the Ads Show Game Awards after nearly a decade following a hated finale and a spin-off so horrendously broken that many had thought the series was dead entirely. Regardless of the outcome of this game to be- the sheer levels of expectation are like to annihilate it upon release- it’s just another reminder of what could have been. Debating the possibilities of the future is a depressing rut to find yourself in, so best not to dwell on it. Be happy for what you experienced, and, given the capacity, save such things from digital oblivion. Share it with others, and enjoy history. Preserve it.

Give it a new home. Another realm, if you will.