The Digital Downside:
Will there be digital memory lanes in the future?

Show caption
Anders Sjöman from the Centre for Business History, visiting San Francisco in September 2019. (Photo: Selfie.)

I recently went to the ICA SBA business archive con­fer­ence, this year held in San Francisco. One conference topic: What are companies saving in today’s digital world. Or are they erasing hard drives and mail accounts so fast that nothing is left for the future to see? I wrote an op-ed about it for Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet. Here is an English translation.

Read the original article (in Swedish) on Svenska Dagbladet.

Here’s the article in English:

Will there be digital memory lanes in the future?

She spans the Golden Gate strait just as gracefully as when I last visited San Francisco, 23 years ago.  Two decades is not long for a soon 100-year-old bridge. Much has happened in the business world, though. Then, in 1996, there was no Google (founded 1998), Facebook (2004), Airbnb (2009) or Uber (2009). Today, these San Francisco-based companies are global giants. History is made fast. 

But none of them are at the international business archives conference that brought me to town.

The over 100 companies, that have convened at host Levi Strauss & Co (1853), still span much of the world’s corporate history. We discuss everything from blue jeans to car drawings and computer chips. Between us, we document medical breakthroughs and food retail development, as well as the ups and downs of the entertainment and finance industries. All become part of the collective business memory, helping us understand the societies we live in today.

In this context, I am an odd bird. In most countries, companies keep their own historical collections, but in Sweden, our Centre for Business History host thousands of different business archives.  Not that it matter here: we all share the same concerns and issues. And one of the returns throughout the conference: how make the young companies of today keep records of what they do?

In an analog world, documents and material were always “left over” and a good archivist can always recreate contexts and processes. But in a digital world, we wipe hard drives and erase mail accounts at an almost furious speed. How should the learnings of this ear, the “fourth industrial revolution”, be preserved?  The issue is just as important in Sweden, with companies such as payment solution provider Klarna (founded 2005), music and media provider Spotify (2006), digital games studio Mojang (2010) or scooter company Voi Scooters (2018).

I visit a few companies in the area after the conference. Facebook has two archivists on a time-limited project. It remains to see if their project report results in a permanent archivist position. At Google, there are no archivists at all. Instead they have a loose collaboration with the local Computer History Museum. Not evven the classic computer company Cisco, whose routers and switches make our Internet-based world function, has its own archivist.

Will we paradoxically be more forgetful in the digital era, when really it should be easier to preserve what we create? 

In the future, when we feel like a stroll down memory lane, will there even be a lane to walk on?  Or will it all have been erased in a well-meant but unfortunate digital clean-out?  Hope not!