Storing written stuff is hard

The things we write online cease to exist when our servers stop working. This can happen when we stop caring about the things we wrote, when we run out of money, when the host goes bankrupt and eventually when we die. I really don’t know how to reach this exact article under this exact URL in 500 years time. Joel Dueck says it like this in his essay The Unbearable Lightness of Web Pages:

We can still read books and pamphlets printed five hundred years ago, even though the presses that made them have long since been destroyed.

I’ve heard that idea before. And I wrote about it before as well. It is true that in theory we can still read books that were printed 500 years ago, if only they weren’t so rare. Most of their owners stopped caring about them, threw them away, lost them in a fire, went bankrupt. Or they died and their heirs didn’t care about all that paper stuff. Books get eaten by rats, get burned by people who don’t like their content, they fall apart. There really aren’t that many old books and pamphlets left. And even if they do exist, they are so hard to find! Try reading a 500 year old book that’s reportedly in a museum in Aleppo when you’re at home.

Which doesn’t change anything about the fact that we should come up with a more permanent solution for URLs and the content they point to. Of course Joel is right about the fact that our current web is not made for the long term at all. I like his idea of offering printed version of our stuff as one possible solution — though I would love to see a more distributed, accessible solution. His idea of printing the web is something I’ve been playing with for quite a while now, but from a different angle: I am interested in all the different ways a webpage can appear: small, big, on a calibrated monitor, on an 8 year old smoke stained laptop, via a screen reader, and in printed form. For me it’s just an extra layer of chaos, of uncontrol.

If I understand it correctly Joel’s server generates a new PDF with all the contents of his site every time he publishes something. You can then download this PDF, or order a print of it. I like this idea. I should add such a feature to this site as well. Sounds like an excellent procrastination project.

Thank you Peter Gasston for using two tweets to point me to Joel’s article.