It got me thinking about my own email records, and the systems that we have—or, more precisely, don’t have—for preserving our digital lives.
Globally, around 347 billion emails are sent every day, according to data analysis by Zippia Research. My own archive holds treasured messages marking some of the most important days of my life: a letter of acceptance to graduate school, travel plans with my sisters, a job offer at Tech Review, an invitation to reconnect with a close friend with whom I’ d lost touch.
I have many more mundane and unexceptional emails chronicling the patterns of my days that I still deeply value: a record of an argument and its resolution with one of my best friends, generous and consistent feedback from my parents on the stories I write, and the adoption papers for my rescued dog.
I’ve never thought all that much about what to do with all these digital records. I have had a sort of expectation that I will always have the ability to access and manage my emails on my own terms. I don’t currently save particularly important ones the way I store cherished handwritten letters in a shoebox. I probably need to adjust the way I think about these things.
Because of course, in reality, I’m just renting space from a network of computer servers and cables under the ocean, called the cloud, owned by a tech company with an annual revenue of over $200 trillion. And as one of my sources, Data & Society researcher Robyn Caplan, told me, it’s “a lot to ask of them to provide these spaces for us indefinitely.”
There is no guarantee of digital permanence. Though tech companies certainly reference data storage and archiving as a core selling point of their services, online documents like emails are at once both more permanent and more ephemeral than analog letters. And we all need to get used to this idea.
The new policies foreground the ephemerality. “It feels like a broken promise somehow,” says Caplan. But the promise was, largely, only implied.
Ever-growing expansion of personal data is a particularly acute problem when we consider the long history of humanity. Around 180,000 people die every day, leaving terabytes of data hanging around in the cyberverse. The Internet Archive currently archives more than 1 billion URLs a day from the public web.