September 7th, 2009

The (Im)Permanence of the Internet

886519Imagine you are in a library. As you walk through the library the books all disappear, only to return three hours later, as if nothing happened.

Or, you find an item on the shelf. You pull it down, open the book, and instead of the text you find the following: 404 Error Page Not Found. You open the next one and suddenly an advertisement for cheap pharmaceuticals starts playing.

Okay, so that’s never going to happen. But it happens every day on the internet. Focused on providing immediate content, the internet doesn’t have a great archive. Things come and go. And as we transfer ever greater quantities of information (and hackers become more sophisticated), the system can simply shut down.

The reference librarians at Capella use the internet daily, so we’re well aware of the frequency of losses. In fact, whenever the Google search engine stops working–which is more often than you think –we laugh about how we broke Google (that should give you an idea of Librarian humor).

There have been some other high-profile internet service problems lately: Twitter was taken down by a hacker and gmail stopped working entirely for a while. This sort of loss of service can be a real bummer if you let your friends’ Tweets coordinate your social activities, or you’ve placed your entire life on Google’s servers.

But how does this impact your academic life? What does it mean for research?

Library databases are similar to the internet in this respect. There’s no guarantee that a journal will remain a part of any particular database, and only a portion of journals have digitized all the way back to volume 1, issue 1. But as long as you’ve got a citation, you can use alternative methods to dig up a journal article.

Open internet pages are a completely different beast. They may exist in only one form: that single internet page. And that page can disappear at any time. In fact, many links go missing after only a few months or years, which is just the blink of an eye in the world of academic research.

But that same item may continue as a citation in a bibliography that no one can check. Something can be misinterpreted or misquoted by a single author, but because no one can check it, the misuse is the only use that lives on.

Similarly, an internet world where things disappear quickly is a world where people may be reinventing the wheel . . . every few years. Researchers are subject to fads, just like everyone else, so a ‘hot topic’ from 1999 can show up again in 2009, but no one can find the results of the previous round of interest.

This isn’t something new. The fall of the Roman Empire caused the ‘loss’ of a lot of information – from the writings of ancient philosophers to the recipe for concrete. The Western world survived that loss of information, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about what impermanence means for research today.

– Erin

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