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In Favor Of Preservation Over Permanance


When I was in high school, I was an idiot. Sure, I was smart. I passed my classes. I did my work. But I was an idiot in the sense that teenagers (especially teenage boys) don't think before they act. What seems smart when you're 16 or 17 looks incredibly dumb when you're 38.

In one of my yearbooks, I thought it would be a great idea to caption many of the people in my class. Snarky and inappropriate captions litter that yearbook. They are written in permanent marker, and I cannot ever remove them without removing each page that is marked up. Looking through the yearbook now is embarrassing. I can't show it to my kids. I cringe when my wife looks and makes fun of the stupid teenage version of me.

It lives on even though I wish it didn't.

Contrast that with a collection of pencil sketches I found that I had done when I was in fifth grade. When I was younger, I wanted to be an artist. My gradfather had been a sketch artist for a local police department in the 1960s and I had always been inspired by his artistic talents. I didn't want to draw criminals and reconstructed images of dead people, though. I wanted to draw comics. So, I drew the likes of Batman.

I managed to keep a few of my old sketches, and I cherish them to this day. But they are delicate. They are made of paper and graphite. They can crumple. They can smudge. I want them to last, so I take care of them.

This is the difference between preservation and permanence. Most things shouldn't be permanent. For the things that should be, it's usually an indicator that you or someone else cares enough to make sure it lives on. Suggesting up front that something should live on forever is both short-sighted (teenage me can attest to this) and filled with hubris (is whatever it is you're trying to preserve actually all that valuable to the world?). Naturally allowing that thing to live on because people care enough to preserve it feels right.

Blockchain technology has perverted the way we think about permanence. Because we think it's possible to keep a permanent record of everything, we somehow also think we should. A permanent ledger is an accounting tool. It's a globally scalable and open accounting measure that anyone can plug into. Permanence here makes sense.

Extending it much further than that is where things get murky. Should that blog post you wrote in 2017 be permanent? Maybe. What about that comment you left on your ex-girlfriend's Flickr page when you were drunk back in 2014? Again, maybe.

Other people might think it's worth saving. The Internet Archive has been doing this for years with web pages because they care. Those web pages came with no guarantees of permanence when they were published, though. Your blog post shouldn't either.

You, as an individual, should have the right to change your mind about something. And when you do change your mind, it's fair to have the content that follows you around change as well. We remove that fundamental capability when we force things into permanence.

Web3 should not be "the permanent web." It should be the "open web."

As humans, we show we care through intentionality. Intentionality is stolen from us when things are forced into permanence. Care is stolen from us. When we don't have to care about something, we won't.

Permanence is about control. Preservation is about care.