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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

The Unbearable Persistence of Information

Some things just refuse to go away, no matter how much you ignore them.For example, just when you think you've finally lived down your worst high school gaff, you will meet an old classmate at a professional conference who will bring it up in front of your current colleagues with whom you've worked hard to gain a reputation of competence and respectability. Likewise, if you ever run for political office, someone will come out of the woodwork and tell the press about the party in college where people were smoking a certain special "herb" and you happened to be in the room (we know you didn't inhale).

The Internet is no different than real life. Anything that was ever online has the potential to always be online. Just when you thought that E-mail flame you wrote was long gone, it turns up on a mailing list archive somewhere. Just when you thought that Website you maintained was long gone, it turns out someone liked it so much, they made a copy for their own server.

I had a recent experience along these lines. In 1994, I contributed to a book called Tricks of the Internet Gurus. Back then, if you knew how to use FTP you were basically a guru (I guess times haven't changed too much). 1994, though, is an eon ago in Internet time. Many of the Internet services explained in excruciating detail in that book are long gone. How may people remember gopher, archie, veronica, WAIS, etc.?

I received an E-mail from someone who was mentioned in one of the book chapters (even though I didn't write that chapter, he E-mailed me, because I was the first author on the list thanks to the alphabet). He had done a name search on and found himself referenced in this 1994 book. The publisher had placed the entire book online after it became too embarrassingly out of date to sell. Apparently, someone had "grabbed" a copy and is still serving it up to the Internet. The irony of all this is that this Internet which we are so fond of for finding the most current technical and up-to-date information can also provide some of the most obsolete information you'll ever find.

The moral of the story is, just because information is on the Internet doesn't mean it's accurate, timely, or up to date. This reminds me of the time that a book I wrote on Gopher was translated for the mainland China market. By the time it was published, there was hardly a trace of Gopher left in the world and I had to explain via E-mails I received from China that the reason the instructions in the book didn't work was because the servers just didn't exist any more. But then again, you never know...

See "The Ghosts of Data Past" at to find out just how deleted your files really are.