Will History be a Casualty of an “Ecommony”? If info is free who will pay to archive it for posterity?

March 3, 2009

Kudos to Eric Auchard’s Reuters column for triggering a whole new line of thinking in his brilliant piece: “The Black Hole, how the web devours history.” His column is a must read for anyone who cares about history and historical archives, because it brings to life the real-world problems of ensuring that key historical information is permanently archived and retrievable via the Internet.

The more I noodled on Mr. Auchard’s thought-provoking premise, I concluded that the origin of this devoured-history problem is not technology, which many might prematurely conclude, but the “information wants to be free” ethos of the digital commons.

  • That’s because this problem would not be hard for technology to solve, IF it was a priority to solve. The fact that archiving history on the web is a big problem, tells us it is not a technology or financial priority to solve. This prompts the important question — why is historical archiving not an Internet priority?
  • The real reason is that if “information wants to be free” — then who pays for the cost of archiving it?
  • Practically, “free” information means advertising supported. However, since historical archives may be the longest of “long tail” Internet content, what advertiser is going to want to advertise the accessing of extremely diverse historical minutia?

To build on Mr. Auchard’s outstanding insight, could Google, the increasingly dominant repository of links to find the “world’s information,” turn out to be the modern version of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, which as the dominant repository of the world’s books at the time of Christ, ultimately was largely lost forever to humankind via fires?

The important point here is that the “information wants to be free” ethos and the advertising-supported model for Internet content is not only deficient to fund the creation of quality content or journalism, but it is also deficient in funding the archiving of important historical information.

The screaming takeaway here is that if the most successful company in monetizing the access to content in the world, Google, only earns a paltry ~$2.60 per user/viewer per month in the “ecommony” (which is twenty times less than companies earn to produce, distribute, and archive quality content offline) where is the money going to come from to archive history on the Internet?

Bottom line:

Thanks to Mr. Auchard’s brilliant insight, we learn that there is yet another dimension of public life that the Internet does not respect — history.

Add that to the Internet’s well known lack of respect for property and lack of respect for privacy and a very disturbing pattern emerges — the “information wants to be free” ethos — trashes property rights, expectations of privacy and … history. What does it respect?

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