Nanna Bonde Thylstrup, professor at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), studies data loss in the digital age. In June he published in New York Times an article titled The world’s digital memory is in danger, and this year she received one of the European Union’s largest grants to study how, in the age of digital abundance, our societies’ past is in danger.
Dematerialization has unforeseen implications for who and how keeps current discussions, private messages or business documents from the past. It’s a challenge of surprising complexity when it seems that society leaves an infinite digital trail. It is not like that. The interview took place in Barcelona, where Thylstrup, 42 years old and born in Copenhagen, participated in a conference related to the exhibition AI: Artificial Intelligence at the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona.
Ask. There is more and more information and data. What should you keep?
Answer. This is a political decision that each country must make. More and more data of public interest is not available. The problem is not just who owns this information. Also who has access. I’m not just talking about government information. It may also be data owned by Amazon, not just what it stores on its servers. This is data that they produce themselves or that people produce for them and that belong to them, such as reviews or descriptions. Another preservation issue is knowing which organizations should be able to access and preserve this type of information for historical purposes.
Q. Why is this such a difficult question?
A. Today we still understand the challenges and opportunities of digital societies, linked to the ever-increasing accumulation of data: this gives us, on the one hand, advantages such as advances in health and, on the other hand, challenges such as monitoring or data extraction. …to sell us things. If we focus only on this accumulation, we run the risk of losing sight of the fact that digital is extremely volatile and fragile and needs constant curation if we want it to remain accessible. File formats are going out of fashion, there is an obsolescence of formats, platforms which are closing. We don’t even have the vocabulary to address these issues: what do we mean when we say that a platform closes and the data disappears? It depends, for example, if there is a merger with another company, the data may still be there, but we cannot access it. They could even still be there and be used without our knowledge.
Q. What is missing to talk more about this subject?
A. We have not had enough debate, from a political point of view, about how to preserve our digital memory. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep everything. This is not my position. But we need a nuanced discussion about who and how we make decisions about what to keep and what to let go. This is why I greatly appreciate the idea of the European Data Protection Regulation that people should also have the right to be forgotten. Not only is everything saved forever. We know that we no longer live in an era of information scarcity like we used to. At the same time, the information we have is incredibly volatile. We might lose some of our memory because a file format becomes obsolete.
Q. So what information should we keep?
A. This question is for those responsible for archives. Who can know what will be interesting and historically valuable in 30 years? There are the major events, but also the everyday, which is generally the most interesting for historians. This helps to understand everyday problems: how people lived in 1950 or 1830.
Q. For example?
A. There was a controversy in Denmark recently. There is a national application used for the relationship between schools and parents. The Minister of Culture has just banned the conservation of private messages from this application, which were captured by national archivists. It’s controversial. Historians say this will be useful 100 years from now, when we need to understand how parenting has changed with the introduction of digital technologies: Can we see gender patterns? We know that all women are in charge of these applications, even in an egalitarian society. We don’t see any men there. Or with Covid and how school has changed. That’s the challenge of archiving, and that’s why archivists are experts in evaluation, they make the decisions about what goes in and what doesn’t and it’s always a political decision because they are the guardians of a cultural memory.
Q. In Spain there is a similar file.
A. I’m not an expert on the Spanish system, but it seems they have a similar approach to Denmark. So they keep some “.es” websites, also “.cat” and some others. Then they do a massive scan that goes through the network very generally, and then there are the key events. For example, if there is a big football match or a terrorist attack, they intensify monitoring. Then they have something called political or electoral where they do massive tracking specifically in the political area. There is also one called risk. They therefore have more specialized focuses and more thematic monitoring.
Q. Is this tracking carried out not only on the Internet, but also on Instagram or in messages between politicians?
A. All. For example, with Twitter, people reacted not only out of disagreement with Elon Musk’s strategy, but also out of a great sense of loss for the communities they had built there. An example is the so-called Black Twitter, who has built an incredible archive and a jargon all his own. The question is no longer just what happens to this cultural memory, but maybe you can’t access it. It’s essentially a certain type of cultural memory that is in the hands of a company, in this case Twitter. We still feel like these platforms exist and we don’t really think about mitigation strategies if they suddenly stop or decide to change like Tumblr did with pornographic content. These are clearly private companies who have the right to manage these communities as they wish, because it is within their jurisdiction. Then, we have organizations which set up sorts of counter-files. When Twitter began to shut down or take down, some communities said it needed to counter-archive certain cases.
Q. The archives do not have agreements with these companies.
A. The problem is that they can change their technical access patterns, so it becomes very difficult to trace. This is one of their greatest challenges as archival institutions. They have no agreement with these companies that allows them to do this, for the sake of the investigation or the story. Regarding newspapers or books, in Denmark we have a law that states that whenever you publish something, it must also be transmitted to the National Library. In my country, one website counts as one publication. But it is inherently unstable, because websites are updated and not sent in the same way as other publications. Also, if there is an election and everything that happens is happening on How can we understand Brexit without what happened on Twitter or Facebook?
Q. Is the main concern that we don’t know what to preserve in general or that we are already losing so many things that it’s hard to know which ones?
A. Both. Institutions decide what to keep, but conditions are sometimes difficult. We know we want to save everything that is relevant to historically understanding an election, but the conditions for doing so are complicated because private companies protect the data. So the conditions complicate things for the institutions, then there are somewhat technical questions, but I think fundamental, namely if we say that we want to preserve something, how to differentiate what is Spanish on the Web from what is global ? These are also difficult questions. But these are challenges we have already encountered. The fundamental risk now lies in the fact that archivists cannot work professionally in poor conditions due to access. The political challenge is how to organize our societies so that private companies do not have the power to block access to something that is in the public interest. Then there are material challenges around all of this, which is inherently fragile. It’s not like a piece of paper that will be there in a hundred years. It’s a material challenge. This is linked to economic challenges as companies make money from updates.
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