The first time I considered this kind of question was some time in the mid 1980s when they got rid of the Ms. Pacman machine from the local arcade. I was fifth on the all-time high score board – don’t be too impressed, I only played it because no one else did and it was my only chance of getting a high score on any of the machines. Anyway, I asked the surly, chain-smoking change woman what happened to the Ms. Pacman machine. She muttered something about them moving unpopular machines around their various arcades. When I asked her where she thought it might be she lost her temper and threatened to ban me.
However, it’s not just our Ms Pacman high scores and digital identities that lack permanence – it’s the whole of our increasingly digital culture.
The Wayback machine is pretty good, but what happens when their servers go down? I suppose we could use the backups, but compact discs aren’t good for much more than 100 or so years. It seems entirely possible that in 1000 years time – assuming some kind of societal cataclysm – that our older paper-based culture is much more likely to survive that the current efflorescence of digital culture. There are those who’d argue that’s a good thing, but our digital culture isn’t all about our Ms Pacman highscores and what’s written on our Facebook walls. For example, it’s widely agreed that some profound shifts in digital communications culture helped elect Barack Obama, but how do we record this story? Where do we store the petabytes of information our culture produces each day? How much do we keep? How much do we throw away? What happens to our digital identity when we die?
Of course, I may be wrong, maybe digital culture will turn out to be more persistent than I suspect. After all, it seems just about possible that my Ms. Pacman high score lives on in the loft appartment of some hedge-funder who blew part of his bonus on the classic arcade games of his youth in an attempt to recapture something he felt he had lost.