Present self vs. future self: An exploration of the psychology of planning for effective digital preservation - Arkivum

Archiving & Preservation / 09 Jun, 2022

Present self vs. future self: An exploration of the psychology of planning for effective digital preservation

One of the biggest challenges I see within the digital preservation community is communicating its value to the wider business.  

Outside of industries such as higher education and heritage organisations, digital archiving and preservation is often seen as something that has to be purchased (e.g. for compliance with retention regulations). 

Something that we’ve talked about on our blog before is the additional value that appropriate long-term data management can bring – benefits that are often not fully appreciated or realised by organisations. 

Present self vs. future self 

The other week I was at a marketing conference where I was introduced to the idea of the present self vs. the future self. At a basic level, as humans we tend to prioritise our present self over our future self…it’s why we are tempted to have that biscuit offered to us, even though we’re trying to cut down on treats.  

In the context of a marketing conference, it was looking at the idea of why people make certain purchasing decisions and it got me thinking about the relation to the work that Arkivum does. 

In many ways, our customers (regardless of their reason for investing in digital preservation) have taken the choice to prioritise their future self – or the future of their organisation. It would not be unimaginable that some of the people we work with directly will never need to access the records that they are preserving. 

I started this post by referencing the challenge the digital preservation community face in prioritising their needs within the organisation and I see a synergy between proper investment in an effective approach, and that of prioritising your future self.  

Prioritising the future self 

Much research has been done on this battle between the two self’s. 

I found one article of particular interest on a site called ‘The Decision Lab’ which offered guidance on how to increase the importance placed upon the future self. Within it, it talked about three steps to help with this (and these were mirrored in similar pieces that I read). 

For the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to take a look at these three steps through an archiving and digital preservation lens.  

1- Imagine your future self:  

It might be easier said than done but the idea is simple enough. In terms of archiving and preservation it is quite likely that you are currently playing the role of someone else’s future self. Have you ever struggled to find an important old file but couldn’t? May there have been times when it would have been useful to have older information available to you? And how confident would you be if you did try and find an old record, that it would still open on your current computer or mobile device?  

I’d argue that it is the responsibility of those working today to ensure that they are not only foreseeing a time when they may need access and use of current records, but other current and future staff will as well. 

2- Emphasising the similarities between the present and future self:  

In many ways linked to the above point, but according to research* we’re more likely to prioritise our future self if we accept that we will not be too different now, to our future self.  

In a business environment this can extend to future staff who may either need access to data or indeed someone who is doing your role in 5 or 10 years from now. Appreciating that they will likely face many of the same challenges you do can help prioritise decisions which impact the future self. 

3- Make the most of positive views:  

In the article this tip recommends emphasizing the positive qualities of the future self (if we take my biscuit example above, it might be fitting into a smaller pair of jeans). For me and this blog post I think this strongly resonates with creating a business case for investing in an appropriate digital preservation strategy and approach.  

As an example, for those organisations investing because they have to retain data in line with regulatory requirements, fully explore what other benefits long-term access to that data could bring. Each organisation will differ but find what will have the most impact and articulate it to the wider business. 

In Summary 

The battle between the present and future self is hard; at the very least I hope that this blog post has helped to either reframe how you approach your digital preservation planning, or better communicate the importance of it to a wider audience. 

I also recently wrote an article on investing in organisational memory, which I think ties in closely to some of the points I’ve made here. If you’re interested, you can have a read of that post here. 

Finally, please feel free to email me at if you would like to discuss any of the topics I’ve covered in this post. 

*’For example, Bartels & Urminsky (2011) found that college seniors were more likely to elect to delay a monetary reward (resulting in greater total compensation) when they were told that they would remain pretty much the same person after graduation than when graduation was described as fundamentally life-altering event.’ – Increasing the pull of the future self, Sarah Molouki, The Decision Lab 

Tom Lynam

Tom is the Marketing Director at Arkivum. He joined the business in January 2020 tasked with driving new business growth and building the brand into new sectors such as Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences. He has over 12 years’ experience in several diverse marketing leadership roles across technology and professional services organisations.

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