Vaporous Knowledge

When the apocalypse strikes, we’re all going to be really sorry that we decided to store everything in the cloud. As the grid powering the Internet and all those data centres collapses, suddenly these pocket computers will contain almost nothing of value, since they can’t get at any of the knowledge that once made us as gods.

In The Web of Alexandria (follow-up), Bret Victor describes two types of media:

[S]ome very stable and reliable media, DNA and print, owe their stability and reliability to replication and retention— every reader gets a copy, and every reader keeps their copy. The web, on the other hand, follows the strategy used for books before the printing press — put a single copy in an institution, allow readers to come visit, hope it doesn’t go up in smoke.

Whenever the ephemerality of the web is mentioned, two opposing responses tend to surface. Some people see the web as a conversational medium, and consider ephemerality to be a virtue. And some people see the web as a publication medium, and want to build a “permanent web” where nothing can ever disappear.

Neither position is mine. If anything, I see the web as a bad medium, at least partly because it invites exactly that conflict, with disastrous effects on both sides.

We don’t even need to follow the logic of apocalypse to understand that single points of failure are a bad idea. URLs are just such a thing, and are wreaking havoc today:

For the law and for the courts, link rot and content drift, which are collectively known as “reference rot,” have been disastrous. In providing evidence, legal scholars, lawyers, and judges often cite Web pages in their footnotes; they expect that evidence to remain where they found it as their proof, the way that evidence on paper—in court records and books and law journals—remains where they found it, in libraries and courthouses. But a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked.

…To forget the past is to destroy the future. This is where Dark Ages come from.

On a practical level, this makes installing a local Wikipedia mirror look pretty attractive.

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