The Internet Does Forget

There was this now-peculiar thing that many families did in the 90s. In the living rooms of people’s houses, they had photo albums for visitors to look through. Especially when one hadn’t visited in a long time, a picture could spark a conversation about an interesting place, or invite communal mourning regarding a common acquaintance who had passed away.

In our home growing up, we also had a number of photo albums. Each told different stories of my parents’ younger days, my various birthday parties, school sports games and functions we attended together. I occasionally get a message from someone who is flipping through some old photos of their own and finds me in them, bringing back fond memories. Nowadays, this sharing of pictures is done online on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

I was an early adopter of the internet. In the 90s, there was a site called GeoCities where users could create public web sites for free. I remember creating one telling the (short) story of my life. I tried finding the site, but GeoCities doesn’t exist anymore. After GeoCities, there was the social network Hi5. I’m not sure what happened to my profile there too.

Facebook then became the new place to share one’s personal news to those who may be interested. At first I was skeptical to join because it seemed the same as Hi5, but then I went all in. From 2006 when I joined, I shared pictures of places I’ve been, thoughts of what I was processing, posted on people’s walls and commented on their videos. From about 2017, I deactivated. In 2021, I deleted both my Facebook and Instagram accounts. All that information, gone.

The danger of storing all records of our lives and organisations online is that much of that data will probably not exist in the medium-term future. They are dependent on our relationship with the application provider, such that if we are no longer using the site, or the terms of use change, so does our data. They are also dependant on the continuation of the current geo-political arrangement that support many of these applications we use. This loss of data has already started. In her book Femicide in South Africa, Nechama Brodie laments that between 2013 when she started her research until 2019, “hundreds of [news] archive links no longer existed”.

Stellenbosch University hosts The Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past (LEAP) which does very interesting work gathering data from the past times to better understand the times from which the data came. There are birth records, newspaper archives, business receipts, title deeds, slave transactions, baptismal records and more which are trawled through to better understand individuals and communities. These archival records which have been meticulously kept help us re-imagine with more accuracy the past that we can’t see today. 100 years from today, would curious family members or researchers be able to piece our world? Could we be the generation with the most data about ourselves today, yet the most forgotten tomorrow?

The promise the internet gave us was simple and easy access to information from anywhere in the world. In 20 seconds, I can have any book I want to read or any movie I want to watch at my disposal. But, as we uncritically adopt these new technologies, we may be robbing future generations who desire to “tell their own people’s stories” as so many of our own generation want to do today.

Lately, my son has been asking many questions about my own childhood. He wants to know how similar I lived back then compared to how he’s living now. I can try and paint a picture with my words to describe what he cannot see, which he still appreciates. But when he occasionally visits his jjajja, he has access to treasure troves of images that paint more clearly than my words can ever do. If he too has children one day, I hope they’ll be afforded the same opportunity.

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