The Case of the Vanishing Text Messages

It would be a shame if messages like this were lost…

A couple of days ago every text message on my phone vanished. This happened overnight: I slept secure in the knowledge that my 2,000 messages were safely stored; the next morning, on checking my phone after hearing a new text alert, I found only the single, solitary, new message I had just received. Where had they all gone? Quite possibly they exist somewhere, although that somewhere is probably buried deep within the US National Security Agency or Britain’s GCHQ. Thanks to Edward Snowden we know that an NSA program dubbed Dishfire was indiscriminately collecting nearly 200 million text messages every day in 2011. However, contacting the NSA and GCHQ on the off chance they possess an archive of my messages strikes me as foolish. So to all intents and purposes my messaging history over the past couple of years has disappeared for good.

An event such as this ought to hit me hard. I am the sort of person who saves every piece of communication from friends and colleagues that comes my way. I preserve every letter and card I am sent; I save and archive all emails I exchange (on one of my email accounts there is a folder containing all 5,000 or so emails between myself and an unhinged woman in New York, a ‘romantic’ story I am unfolding elsewhere); you can be sure if you contact me the communication will be archived, even if it is only a pithy email expressing the fervent wish that I ‘rot in hell’ (not, some may be surprised to know, a frequent wish, but it has happened). I archive primarily for archiving’s sake. I have no doubt that of all the many thousands and thousands of emails I preserve I will not look at more than a handful again in my remaining years. But in some way they all constitute a record of my past, and as an historian I instinctively like to preserve such records. And as evidence of my brilliant and witty contribution to the art of texting (if not sexting), the disappearance of my messages now means that people will simply have to take my word for it…

... or this
… or this

However the sudden evaporation of my messaging history has happened before with my phone (see here and here for evidence that this issue is not unique to me). And when I upgraded my phone a few years ago, there was no way of retrieving the message archive on my previous phone. So I have long been sceptical of the archiving stability of text messages. Doubtless there are ways to archive were I to devote enough of my precious time to investigating the matter; and I’m told that messages on the iPhone are stored in the Cloud (but since I try to avoid Apple as best I can, this is of no help to me). But in place of doing anything practical about my problem I’ve decided to think about it instead. Two issues seem interesting to me, both in relation to issues raised by digital communication: whether and what we should archive; and the accessibility and security of archives.

Preserving a record of the past is important; even a society which consciously constructs a false version of the past needs its records (a point brought out in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—Winston Smith’s job is to falsify records). Most societies have evolved careful rules and procedures about preserving official documents, court records, important correspondence, minutes, reports, and so on; similarly, companies and businesses are expected to retain records, and most wish to keep an archive. There are good reasons for doing this: the phone-tapping scandal revealed how important from a legal and transparency perspective it was that News International retained its email correspondence (and, fortunately, David Cameron’s struggle to understand what ‘LOL’ means in his text messages to Rebekah Brooks); whereas the failure of the Russian World Cup bid to preserve its emails has hampered the investigation into allegations of FIFA corruption.

But, as any archivist would confirm, it becomes impractical to archive all information—there is simply too much of it. The National Archives at Kew store approximately 11 million documents on 100 miles of shelving, adding at least a mile of shelving each year; to save space at Kew, deep salt mines in Cheshire are now used to hold some records. Even then, records need to be destroyed: the National Archives has drawn up a policy of which records can be discarded—those that are ‘deemed to have no long-term value’. Deciding where to draw the line between those records worthy of long-term preservation and those that can be disposed of as valueless ephemera is, however, fraught with difficulties (not least over who has the power to make these decisions). As many historians know, it is frequently those records which held little value in their contemporary society which go on to become valuable historical documents. A good example of this comes from one of my own areas of research interest: the visual print culture of early modern England. There is a good survival rate of those printed images from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at the higher end of the market, since these were the ones valued by collectors. But the survival of cheap prints is much patchier, even though they were almost certainly produced in far greater quantities than the ‘quality’ prints—ignored by connoisseurs and collectors, and regarded as disposable ephemera, many have been lost to us for good. Yet several centuries on, as historians increasingly focus on the everyday life of society and people in the past, it is precisely this low-end material that becomes most valuable as evidence.

A kitten
A kitten

Consider this in relation to digital communications. On Twitter it is estimated that 500 million tweets are sent each day, which works out at over 180 billion tweets per year; on Facebook, 12 billion messages are sent per day, and every minute 50,000 links are shared and 243,000 photos uploaded. A fair proportion of all this stuff is the stirring information that someone has decided to have a boiled egg for breakfast, or the inspirational pictures of kittens doing amusing and ‘cute’ things—all of which, one might suppose, epitomizes the very notion of ‘disposable rubbish’. But does it really lack value? Setting aside my regret that I decided to write articles rather than post endless pictures of kittens and cats (the latter being a more certain means of gaining an audience), I find the limitless ephemera flying around the internet to be fascinating, and I’m sure future historians will do too—as an insight into the culture and mentality of the world we live in, as evidence of our concerns, our ways of interacting, our means of dealing with the world and all its pressures, all of this is valuable material. While I fear for the sanity of the future PhD student who decides that ‘The Cultural Meaning of the Early 21st-Century Obsession with Kittens’ makes for a viable research topic (I start losing my mind at the sight of two or three kitten pictures, so I shudder at the idea of trawling daily through thousands of the damn things), there is a potentially interesting subject in this, and it is important that we preserve the archives to enable it to be pursued one day.

But will the archives exist for the future historian? My failure to preserve any of the text messages I have sent or received over the past ten years or so suggests that the information we exchange digitally is far from secure or stable. In relation to information management and archiving, this seems to me to be one of the pressing issues of our age: how do we manage and preserve the unimaginably vast amount of information we produce so that future generations, should they wish, can study it in order to understand our present and their past? Rapidly evolving and changing file types, media formats and means of storage do not inspire great confidence that our information will be accessible to future generations. If I put all my documents on a USB stick or CD, what are the chances that in, say, a century’s time there will be the easy means of retrieving these documents—let alone whether Word documents from the early twenty-first century will be compatible with whatever file types are standard in the twenty-second century? In my lifetime music has gone from being stored on vinyl and cassette, to CDs and to MP3s; VHS cassettes are now obsolete; and I haven’t seen a floppy disk drive in nearly twenty years.

I don’t know the solutions to these problems—but I do know that the questions are important. And they are important not simply because of the need to think of ourselves in relation to future generations; they are also important because the control of information is a vital issue of our time. Archivists, librarians, cataloguers—these are the gatekeepers to information. How information is stored, what information is to be preserved and what discarded, how information is organized, who has access to information—these are the concerns of the archivist, the librarian and the cataloguer. Whenever a society decides who the gatekeepers to information should be, it is making a decision about who has power. Clearly I have little power over my text messages as a body of information; a ‘decision’ was made about them by my phone (and possibly other decisions have been made by the NSA and GCHQ too). And that bothers me a lot more than my recent loss of occasional drunken declarations of desire, autocorrect mishaps and insightful comments about the boiled egg I am eating for breakfast.