The Terrifying Permanence of the Internet

by | Dec 17, 2013 | Culture | 29 comments

There’s a moment in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go where two of the characters go looking for a cassette tape in a coastal town in England. One of the characters had lost a tape in her childhood and she hadn’t heard it in years. They go hunting through second hand shops until, magically, there it is. She found it.

It occurred to me as I was reading this passage that we’ll never again have experiences like this, at least not in the same way.

The other night, a random comedy sketch popped into my head, something one of my college RAs played for me on a road trip, The Vestibules’ “Boulbous Bouffant.” It’s a really surreal bit of sound. I had searched for it on the Internet in the early 2000s and had, laboriously, unearthed it somewhere on a random site.

This time when I searched for it, not only did it take two seconds to find and listen to, there were literally dozens of YouTube tribute videos to choose from.

In Never Let Me Go, with today’s Internet the character would never have had to hope it was waiting for her in a second-hand shop. She could have listened to it on Spotify or found the mp3s on iTunes or, if she really craved the tape, she probably could have found it on eBay.

Of course precious physical objects will still exist in the future, but these small mysteries are disappearing quickly. More and more of the world is constantly at our fingertips, wherever we are. And what’s more, there’s very little that disappears into the past.

It used to be that electronics seemed ephemeral. Now, if you want something to be permanent, put it on the Internet.

Etched in Digital Stone

Whenever I talk about e-books, there are still some people who will chime in and say they can’t imagine putting their library at the risk of a glitch and losing everything.

This is a serious misunderstanding. My e-book library is far more secure than anything on paper. My e-books live on multiple devices, they’re backed up to my local backup drive and both Amazon’s and Apple’s clouds. If I ever lost one device I could instantaneously download the e-books onto another.

My apartment could burn down or flood and I’d lose all my paper books, but in order to permanently lose my e-books there would have to be some sort of electron catastrophe that simultaneously destroyed all of the world’s computer servers (and presumably everything else with a computer chip), in which case we would have much more to fear from planes falling from the sky and cars careening through the streets than we would from whatever happened to our e-books.

There’s something about digital files that still feel so impermanent to people, and yet barring an unimaginable apocalypse they’re more permanent than anything etched in stone.

People are now coming around to the unsettling reality that everything you say on social media lasts forever, but it cuts even deeper than that. This week we learned that Facebook may even be keeping track of the status updates you started to write but deleted before posting. Google knows every search you’ve ever made (and so, perhaps, does the NSA). There’s very little you can do online that won’t be stored, somewhere, forever.

Our photos don’t fade and curl their edges and get lost in basements or left behind when we move, they live on perfectly preserved in Flickr accounts and Facebook and iPhoto. Purging yourself after a breakup doesn’t mean collecting a few things and putting them in a box to the left, there is an entire digital trail that is nearly impossible to erase. And reputations can be destroyed in seconds, whether you deserve it or not.

We all know this is rapidly changing our lives. Are we aware of just how much?

To Forget is Human

What happens when you can’t forget?

There have been people who have been reputed to have “perfect” memories, and they endlessly fascinate us, even if the supposed perfection of their memories can be overblown. One woman particularly noted for her memory calls it “agonizing,” and remembers slights as intensely as she did when she experienced them.

Whether there are true consequences for remembering everything, it is certainly uncharted territory for humanity. Photographs didn’t even exist two hundred years ago, now there are 208,000 of them uploaded to Facebook every minute. Where before only the lives of kings and emperors were recorded for posterity, now all of us have digital trails that would put those kings to shame.

All your digital mistakes, all your e-mails, all your photos, many of your darkest thoughts… they’re preserved for eternity. You may now have the comfort of living your life mainly offline and may even be a social media recluse, but so much of your life is still out there.

Earlier in the year I was on a BBC Radio 4 show about Estrangement in the Social Media era, and there was an expert on the show who specializes in erasing people from the Internet. The unbelievable lengths people have to go to achieve that end serves only to illustrate how completely impossible it really is for most everyone.

There are now debates taking place in Europe and Australia about the “right to be forgotten” on the Internet, trying to preserve some sort of analog analogy into the digital era, but this seems to me to be a case where the genie is out of the bottle.

We’re going to have to get used to permanence in a world that used to forget.

Never Let Me Go

We no longer live in a world where it’s hard to find a cassette you once had and you have to go hunting through dusty bins to find it again. We no longer live in a world where two loved ones will fall completely out of touch and are unable to find one another.

Humanity will never be permanent, at least on a cosmic timeline, but as long as our computer servers persist none of us will truly be forgotten. Long after our bodies have been turned to dust our digital footprints will live on, our searches and our e-mails and our online existence preserved as 1s and 0s in some chips in some computers in some server farms scattered around the world.

Sure, in some sense this newfound immortality is academic since we won’t be around to experience it. But how is this affecting us now?

How many people are staying in relationships because they fear how starkly public breakups can be in the Facebook era? How many people have had their reputations destroyed online by one youthful indiscretion or even a colossal misunderstanding? How many people are confronted every day by the digital ghosts of their exes or loved ones who have passed away?

And what about those small moments that depended on the impermanence of our possessions and memories, the thrill of finding something we thought we had lost forever or had spent years and miles trying to find?

Now that we have access to nearly every book and movie and piece of music ever made, I wouldn’t give it up. I wouldn’t go back to a world that forgets. But I hope we’ll still have some small miracles in the Internet era, like a cassette in a dusty bin we couldn’t have possibly found anywhere else.


  1. Kristin Nador

    Great post, Nathan. It's a bit disconcerting to think that your every keystroke can be monitored, followed, and stored for posterity. I wonder how future genealogists will deal with the tons of information (majority useless) of their ancestors. Of course, so many folks still don't realize the fact that today's social media rant is carved in digital stone as much as the hieroglyphs of the past as they continue to share whatever thought comes to mind at that moment.

  2. laurie brunson altieri

    Thanks, Nathan. I appreciate how you articulate matters I have been quietly pondering.

    • Sean Lindsay

      Fixed. Low-power Bluetooth tags mean that soon nothing will be lost, if it is within 10 metres of *anyone* with a smartphone. Not to mention smartphone-enabled locks.

      In the (near) future, the only thing lost will be old jokes.

  3. Mirka Breen

    The ways we tell of finding things will date the time we tell about.

    A couple of years ago, I copied into My Pictures a photo of two of DD's teachers being silly. Not naughty, just a bit juvenile and very funny. I showed it to her and she was delighted with it.
    A year later she wanted to find the very picture to put in a write-up she was doing about them. Turned out the district had them remove the photo from the site. It was not dignified enough for their position or the school district's sensibilities.
    But I had it in my pictures. DD was happy I had done it, and her poster-project could go ahead as planned.
    Got me thinking, though. Once out, it's out forever, somewhere, with someone.

  4. Shawn

    Institutional memory is supposed to fade from generation to generation so that we can always fool ourselves into believing we were the first one to have THAT thought.

  5. Neurotic Workaholic

    I've always tried to be careful about what I say on the Internet, because as they say, once you put it out there, it's out there. It taught me to look before I type, so to speak.

  6. Anonymous

    What if there's a solar storm and we all lose power for a year?!?! I'll be so happy I've got paper books to read!

  7. Jaimie

    This post is epic. I don't really have anything to add. It's all a little scary.

  8. Josin L. McQuein

    Understanding the permanence of digitized information is a bit like understanding sub-atomic structure.

    Digital doesn't seem significant because you can't see or touch what it's made of, but the same holds true for the minute bits that form the molecular bonds in the physical world around us. An electron or a proton doesn't look like anything to the naked eye, but combined with others in the myriad combinations possible, those minutiae become massive. They literally are our reality.

    Put enough bits and bytes together and you get another myriad of combinations that create another kind of weighted existence.

  9. Doug

    Long ago, before many (most?) of the folks reading this were born, there was a predecessor of what we now call Internet. It included a few dozen forums called "newsgroups," and those were passed from computer to computer over dial-up phone connections through a process called "uucp."

    Due to the cost of storage at the time, nobody could afford to keep the entire contents of all of those newsgroups for more than a few weeks. So those of us who wrote on those newsgroups didn't give any thought to the permanence of our ravings. Along with that came the rule that if you didn't use your real name, people would probably ignore you and your ramblings.

    The joke was on us. A few sites did save everything, probably onto magnetic tape. Those archives were put online by a web site called "Deja News," which eventually ended up as part of Google Groups. Much of the stuff that I wrote back in the early-to-mid-80s is now "on my permanent record," as they used to say back when I was in school, under my real name.

  10. Jennifer R. Hubbard

    You raise a lot of good points, and I can't disagree with the basic premise. But I see a few limits.

    Everything on computers COULD be found again, true. But will it?

    I do plenty of computer searches where the top results are not the thing I'm looking for; they are paid ads that are only remotely connected to my keyword. The relevance is lost in a glut of advertising. So:
    #1 it's not always easy to find something even if you know what you're looking for.

    Most stuff on the internet doesn't go viral; most of it sits there read by only a few people. (As many have discovered to their dismay when urged to "go online" to "build an audience.")
    #2 The people who will have any interest in looking at a given piece of information is very small.

    If you don't label a photo, it won't be long before nobody has any idea who or what it shows.
    #3 The value of a piece of information is only as good as its clarity, labeling and indexing.

    I have plenty of computer files that are only 10 or 15 years old, and they're nearly illegible already. Anyone want to try to open an old QuattroPro spreadsheet? How about a Supercalc or Multimate file? Someone probably could, with a lot of effort, but who will bother?
    #4 Digital formats change all the time.

    There's a lot of information out there that is far from unique. Since the advent of the internet, I have discovered there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who have the same name I do. People often get us mixed up, or mix up parts of other people's bios with details from my bio.
    #5 The information people find is not always the right information–even if nobody's making any deliberate attempts to obfuscate.

  11. Doug

    Anon@4:04 – E-Ink type e-readers use very little power. They can easily be run by a solar recharger. There are reports that someone is toying with the idea of an E-Ink reader that is powered entirely by the "page turn" action.

    On the other hand, the publishers have been cutting corners on the quality of books — using groundwood instead of freesheet paper, in particular. How long today's books will last is an open question.

    But in the end… if we lose all power for a year, I think we'll have a lot bigger problems than the availability of light reading, which In My Opinion accounts for the overwhelming majority of e-book titles.


    Lovely post, Nathan!
    I think what's so scary about such a large part of our lives now being online, and permanent, is that we are seldom our real, true selves while online. We don't project our vulnerabilities and quirks, those very things that make us lovable in person. We adopt personas. We are more clever or more astute or more socially conscious, etc.
    A lot of our lives are being preserved online but it's not necessarily the best of who we are.
    As far as books, though, they will live on, which is good and true and right. Social media might lean toward the fake and abstract but books? Books are the best of who we are, of who were once were.

  13. Lyn Fairchild Hawks

    Nathan, what a powerful essay. Having had hard talks with teens–who still don't get–how the digital trail might haunt them into college, I struggle with all these rapid changes in these revolutionary times. I love that my ebooks live forever in the cloud, I love that I can access so many people and plan a reunion with my 8th grade class and find "lost" folk so quickly…but I miss having the mystery of my own faded memory and my own fictional retellings in my head.


  14. abc

    Whoa. And Wonderful.

  15. Lisa Tener

    The permanence of our digital footprints is such an important lesson for everyone to get. Erik Qualman's new book, What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube offers some excellent, simple suggestions for managing–to the extent you can–what people see about you and your business on the internet. He does so with brevity, wit and some eye opening statistics. Here's the Amazon link:

  16. historywriter

    I went to an interesting workshop with our local archives about preserving photos and other ephemera digitally. What I learned is that you need to have photos on several separate devices and types of media –CD, flash drive, hard drive, that you have to copy and change over to a new format every 3 -5 years (they recommend 3 ) and that every time you access your digital photos, the quality of the photos deteriorate. As new material coming into museums and archives, storing is a huge problem. I have books and letters dating back two hundred years, letters, journals and photos 160 years. I take very good care of them. Black and white photos can last 100 years easily. Be sure you copy your favorite baby pictures, print on good paper.

  17. Anonymous

    Why we really have to understand that what we do online is there forever.

  18. Anonymous

    Thank you for this well written and eye opening post. I have always believed in being careful about what I post online but am now more than ever convinced that some things should be reserved for diaries- in long hand!

  19. Terin Tashi Miller

    There is one tiny, itsy-bitsy fatal flaw in the idea that all electronically recorded data is "permanent."

    It is electromagnetic. It, and the devices on which it is stored (there is no real "cloud," it is stored on servers, i.e., computer drives, somewhere) are there for subject to magnetic deterioration, as well as the occasional exposure (degausing) to a polar-opposite charge, the principle on which the idea of an Electro Magnetic Pulse (an effect of a nuclear blast, which is also being studied on its own for military purposes).

    For example, I have a friend who is a professional photographer. He was stunned to discover his photos, stored digitally, were deteriorating in quality as the independent hard drive on which he stored them had a life of only 5 years, like many.

    In other words, everything is permanent–until it isn't.

    And this is the concern for myself and historians: without "hard" copy (printed documents), much risks being lost from the archives and vaults that used to store human intellectual output–not to mention the drive to put everything into a digital storage, to save space, risks such things as personal correspondence, and photographs, deteriorating more quickly (and therefore being less reliable) than, say, film negatives or paper being kept in environmentally controlled or at least protective sleeves etc.

    It's nice to think you can, 50 years from now, call up a digital representation of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Nathan Bransford's correspondence etc.

    But, as digital storage in the form it now exists is really barely a decade old, and ANYTHING you store things on eventually becomes a question of space, I fear it may be putting faith in technology–and something that requires consistent and appropriate generation of energy (which not all countries, and certainly not all people, have or may have access to in the future), is a huge risk.


  20. David Biddle

    Good points, Nathan. There is of course the ability to wipe stuff off the Internet with one click. And, apparently, Amazon has the power to click their fingers and remove books off of Kindles.

    What you really bring to mind with the issue of digital permanence is the question I've been asking myself for years: is this all an extension of me or a weird grayscale shadow-ghost that I set loose over and over again?

  21. Laurence King

    What a great post! This is so true and yes, sad too.

  22. Anonymous

    I'm still confused by the 'shrug whatever' manner in which we accept these invasions.


  23. Sophia

    I sat with my mother, who is in her late 60s, and youtubed every obscure song she could think of from her youth. It was pretty awesome.

    I think being on the internet means having a strong sense of who you are and who you want to be. You have to remain conscious of that with every interaction. And that's pretty tiring. There's no way around it, though. Think before you post. 🙂

  24. Peter Dudley

    I wouldn't go back, either. But, yeah. What you said.



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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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