18 June 2011

Link rot isn't new

Link rot makes a blogger scream. (Maybe someday I'll record a link rot scream and post a link.) Just a few posts before this one, I've got a link to a video that's been reset to private. Videos disappear, even whole sites like imeem and Google Video disappear. Aieee!

Link rot isn't new, though.

Get a cinephile started on lost films; pack a lunch. It is estimated that more than half the silent films made have had all their copies lost. Some are just plain lost, some are known to have burnt in archive fires (early film stock was particularly flammable.) Likewise, a big chunk of the early talkies have been lost. Some films have been partly lost: some scenes, the soundtrack, the film stock but not the soundtrack, one eye of a 3D film, etc. Some films have been lost, but we have photographs taken during production. More recent films have had all the known copies deteriorate past use. Some films have even had all their copies just plain discarded because no one thought they were worth keeping. How would you feel if you were trying to write about a particular significant director whose early films had been lost? Aieee!

Television is even worse. Early productions were broadcast live, so there is no record unless someone made kinescopes (filmed the screen); the kinescopes are then subject to the same archiving problems as any other film. Many other early programs that were filmed or taped have had all their copies lost because no one thought of keeping them. The BBC is notorious for deliberately re-using tapes in the early 60s. Whovians (hardcore Doctor Who fans) are verklempt that so much of the early series has been lost and devote a lot of effort to recovering and assembling bits and pieces from soundtracks, fragments, and production photos that have survived. (Bless Australia, which kept copies of many tapes that the Beeb sent them for their local broadcasts.) Aieee!

No one much expects live performances from before sound recording and film were invented, but even relatively recent scripts and dance scripts have been lost, some from major and significant productions. Aieee!

Much of ancient literature and has been lost over time, of course, but historians are tormented by later works that refer to earlier works, even giving tantalizing extracts (true early links). The Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, the De Architectura by Vitruvius, and the Prose Edda of Snorre Sturlusson are well known examples of this kind of compilation. Libraries and collections burn up (down?). Fanatics burn books. Books are printed on paper that contains acid. Authors insist that their papers be destroyed when they die. One way or another, copy by copy, the work is lost. (And artworks only ever have one copy.) Even quite recent work has been completely lost except in the echoes of links. Aieee!

Online works are quite vulnerable to loss. Links to extant material become obsolete as service providers come and go, as content owners fail to pay their service bills, as sites are reorganized. Having many copies, easy in the virtual world, makes digital work more resilient against loss, but that is balance by the relative fragility of each copy compared to documents on paper or parchment. What will we all do when YouTube and Wikipedia go poof? Aieee!

I like to imagine (really fantasize) that some future historian will be interested in my blog, so I would end up being a minor Pliny the Elder of music. That's very unlikely, but my links will certainly rot. If I do make my own copies of the photo, video and audio recordings I use here, the links to those will rot and the copies themselves will get lost eventually. My own work is deservedly ephemeral, but consider how much of our current culture exists only online and how much is being lost month by month. Rotten links are the tantalizing fragments that will give future historians and fans so much to agonize over.

Dear hypothetical future readers: I'm sorry. I don't know what to do to overcome this; no one does. Remember us all kindly for what we do manage to preserve and forgive us for what we can't.

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