digital footprints & bit rot

Hello! Let me time-box this again. Let’s talk about digital footprints, that which we leave in our wake as we do whatever else it is we are doing with our lives.

Everything we do online (and increasingly offline) creates history. Most of it is boring and useless and not worth the disks it’s stored on. But much of it is. And so it lives… “forever”. Of course, caveat regulations and purposeful deletion which are helpful but only if you know what is being stored about you in the first place. If I go to Bank of America to get cash, how much information is stored about me during the walk from my car to the bank, let alone, at the bank? How many video cameras? How many phones? And how exactly would I know what to do to have it removed and/or if it was legally recorded?

I know we often take it for granted but the most striking thing to me about our growing digital footprint is that it will only grow. It’s inexorably exponential. 

Think of how many pictures you have now vs. how many used to exist when you were growing up. I remember having “a lot of family photographs” when I was a kid — it was at most a few cupboards, some albums and a few shoeboxes. Today, I probably record more in a year than my entire family tree ever had before. Add in video, Whatsapp, iMessage, Facetime, etc., the total is vastly higher and growing. Much of this is permanent, much of it is not. Some of it matters, most does not. A bit will be accessible to my kids, most will rot. It just is…

Benedict Evans tweeted, “It’s possible, indeed likely, that more photos will be taken this year than were taken on film in the entire history of cameras.” This was in 2015.

Martin Wichary had a large thread on Twitter a while back about “accidental memories”: “Fascinated by UIs that accidentally amass memories. One of them is the wi-fi “preferred networks” pane — unexpected reminders of business trips, vacations, accidental detours, once frequented and now closed cafés.” He then added: “The alarm page and its history of painful negotiations with early mornings. (One of these, I’m sure, was for a lunar eclipse; another for sending a friend in Europe a “good luck” text.)” Others replied with more examples: Amazon address lists with every place you ever lived, old computer settings like language keyboards, the weather app locations, reminders, Google Maps history, old Nintendo Wii avatars, Gmail drafts, screenshots, pictures of parked cars, bookmarks, “open recent” lists, and more. (thread)

I delete Tweets. This is my small attempt at reducing my footprint. I tweet, think about all the negative scenarios it could trigger / get bored with it / have other things to do with my night and then delete. I realize it’s a losing battle since this is but a small fraction of my total footprint. But it’s a small spark of control in the broader losing battle. A bit of ephemeral agency.

MySpace accidentally deleted 12 years’ worth of music this week. I believe this is what my friend Sara Haider refers to as bit rot:

def. bit rot (aka software rot): the degradation of a software program over time even if “nothing has changed”; as if the bits that make up the program were subject to radioactive decay. (edited from Wikipedia)

Bit rot is like moths eating clothes in a closet or paper pages exposed to the sun, but for software. Without upkeep and maintenance, software decays. “Maintenance mode” requires active upkeep to really maintain it. The half-life of most is really quite short: software is more butterfly, less crocodile.

And so the ebb of accidental data creation meets the flow of its void that spreads chaotically through bit rot, bankruptcy and neglect.


PS - I changed the name of this newsletter to “Thinking out loud” from “Just another newsletter” - still figuring out what “this” actually is.

Thoughts/comments: On Twitter: @gasca