Permanent's Mission UnpackedEpisode 12
Robert Friedman: Our mission around preservation means that every decision we make when we are building product is about the ability for the data that's been put into our position to endure. And so every time we need to make a choice, about how we're gonna spend our money, about how we're gonna spend our time, we're making it by first asking the question of, "Will this help us preserve the digital legacy of all people or not?"
Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with Permanent.org. This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent and also your podcast host.
This episode we're going to dive into some of what makes the Permanent Legacy Foundation a unique tech nonprofit for social good and how we plan for the future, especially in uncertain times.
For this episode, I got to sit down with our Executive Director, Dr. Robert Friedman, who has over a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector focused on developing an inclusive and ethical digital community.
As the Executive Director of the Permanent Legacy Foundation, Robert is building a nonprofit and historical trust to guarantee secure digital preservation for all people.
Previously, he led the Mozilla Foundation Internet Health Agenda in Texas, working with the Austin community leaders to advance digital inclusion, internet decentralization, open innovation, online privacy and security, and web literacy.
Together, he and his wife, Zarah, make their home in the Lost Pines of Central Texas with their two young children, dogs and chickens.
We're excited to share a little behind the curtain and why our team is so passionate about working at Permanent with our members and listeners.
I hope you enjoy the following conversation with Robert.
Okay, so welcome Robert. Thank you for being here.
Robert Friedman: Thank you for having me.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, this is a unique opportunity for our listeners to really learn a lot about our organization from you. And I wanna start with a little bit of background for everyone who's listening around what initially drew you to Permanent and what are some of the milestones you're most proud of since you took on the executive director role, I think five years ago?
Robert Friedman: Yeah, let's not count. Maybe six. Yeah, it's been a while, but time has flown by. It's been a lot of fun and an excellent challenge.
I encountered Permanent at a moment that was well-timed in my career. I was, sort of enjoying the fruition of work I had been doing over the last decade or more that was sort of at the intersection of education, technology, and cultural heritage organizations.
I had been a research scientist for some amount of time, worked in museums, and I was currently at the Mozilla Foundation, doing digital literacy grant making and community building, when I was introduced to Dean Drako, our founder and the lead benefactor of Permanent, an individual who's really invested a lot of time, thought, and treasure into the project.
I was captivated by Dean's vision for a nonprofit that in many ways would replicate Mozilla's role as a user agent, steward, a fiduciary for people who are trying to, engage with data on the internet.
In the case of Mozilla, they're famous for the Firefox browser, which is one of the leading and best browser options built by a nonprofit organization meant to protect users online when they're exploring the internet. And Mozilla has really led the field when it comes to being a user agent, in what can sometimes be a wild west of the internet, but there is no similar organization that is thinking about preserving people's data.
We're very online now and we're creating so much information about ourselves and the world around us gathering that information. And we are entrusting that to private companies, who have, their own purpose for that data. It is sometimes in the best interest and sometimes not in the best interest of the user.
And so having a nonprofit organization, with the goal of preserving users' data in the short term has value, but the vision for it and the financing for it that Dean sort of had imagined, a cultural heritage organization that might preserve that data, protect that data, extend that data beyond the user's lifetime, for the benefit of future generations of learners and historians and researchers.
And so there was this piece that felt really relevant today around a technology experience that was driven by a social good, was an immediate benefit.
And then the potential for that to impact the future was just super exciting and a good fit for me, having come from some of these spaces where I'd been thinking about these problems for a long time.
And when I joined Permanent, we were still very early in the process. A substantial amount of time had been spent trying to understand the problem space. Dean, as the founder coming from very much the for-profit technology infrastructure world, was approaching it from a very tech sector kind of way. And the problem however, was really a digital preservation problem that people had been spending decades thinking about already in the academic world of information science, archives. And so, they had sort of realized that there needed to be a path forward that really respected the work that had been done before in that academic world in the archival information sciences, libraries, museums, world.
And so, what we had at the time we started, was some really prototype tech and some big ideas. The first milestone was really to establish how we would operate as a nonprofit, our mission, vision, values, decide on a open source methodology to how we were going to build and release product, and engage with our members. And then releasing that first version of the platform or Permanent.org out of this sort of stealthy R&D world of trying to understand the problem and out into the open to get initial feedback from people, both end users and academics and advisors, and convening our board was an incredible milestone. We have Internet Hall of Famers on our board; Paul Vixie, Stephen Wolfram, Tracy LaQuey Parker, Dean himself, you know a lot of really smart and incredible people to learn from.
We have advisors. I got to meet Brewster Kahle and talk to him about the Internet Archive and my old boss at Mozilla, Mark Surman, spent time with me and that was really exciting.
Jumping ahead, I'm really proud of the team we have today. And I think staffing ourselves up with people who are truly committed to our mission and vision has been an incredible milestone. We reached a point where we were getting consistent weekly signups by new members, storage purchases, uploads, mobile app installs, those are really exciting milestones.
And then finally, is launching our Byte4Byte program, which we'll talk a little bit more about, but it is our grant making program for nonprofit organizations and had been an idea and a little bit of an experiment I played around with.
And, Amanda, of course, having you on the team to lead that work most recently, and sort of bring it out there, has been a real exciting development. So yeah, so many milestones. Hard to keep track of 'em all.
Amanda Meeks: Awesome. Thank you. I also really love the Byte4Byte program and getting to facilitate that and work with all of our partners, especially.
My next question is kind of related to Byte4Byte in how we select grantees and all of that. So, one of the reasons I do enjoy being part of Permanent in general is the explicit goal of inclusion, and I think that it's really built into our mission. Could you share a little bit about what shifting the historical paradigm means to you in this cultural heritage context?
Robert Friedman: Yeah. So, it is explicit and baked into our mission, to include as many people as possible into the act of documenting history. Our mission is to preserve and make accessible the digital legacy of all people, and when we say all people, we mean all people. The idea that we might be able to document and preserve the experience that anyone on Earth is having today, for the benefit of future generations, for one thing, is not a guarantee. It is not how things have gone in the past. So, when we talk about of shifting that paradigm, we're envisioning a new kind of history, one that's been sort of assembled from countless individual stories, it's a fundamental idea that everyone has a legacy that deserves to be preserved as opposed to the kind of history we have today, which is dominated primarily, by a few aggregated narratives. History is written by the winner, as they say. And so, there are many incredible historians doing research to understand and share the way in which we arrived where we are today and who contributed and how. They really have to work hard to, find the information they need and to piece together the stories. And there's a lot of reasons why it's been impossible to preserve the history of all people, the legacy of all individuals, in the past.
Preservation is expensive. It requires specialized, environmentally controlled spaces. And in a world where things were written down on paper or inscribed into tablets or painted on murals, there is no practical way to get that into a room, there's no practical way for everyone to do that. And our history is riddled with situations where people have had to migrate, where they've lost their homes, where they have lost loved ones, where natural disasters have destroyed their possessions, and that continues today.
What I think is different now, is that technology has made it possible to capture those moments, to capture that information and to store it, in a remarkably small amount of space at a remarkably low cost, relatively. That's not free, and that's one of the problems we have today is the misguided idea that data storage is free. You're always paying for it somehow, but it is so much more financially feasible for everyone than it has ever been in history. And so the opportunity here, the shift, is to go from this one narrative to really an infinite number of narratives that can be constructed from all these stories because we can now save individual stories because people have the ability to capture, store, transmit, and duplicate, in a way that we've never been able to before.
But that is not a guarantee. As we look ahead into the future that the information we're collecting today, what we're storing today, in the phones in our pockets, and our home computers, on the cloud, that we'll have access to that in the future, that is not a guarantee. That's really where we wanna exist, in the place where we provide a path forward, a solution to that long-term digital preservation for all people.
And so, how do we get to all people? It's not enough to just put a website up on the internet and hope people are gonna show up. And, even if you give them a free gigabyte, which is what we do, and you create a new account, that that's enough or that they are able to use it, they have the technology or devices that they need for it. There’re still so many barriers that we need to overcome in order to get to all people with this technology.
And I think that's where our Byte4Byte program comes in. We've already hinted at that being an important aspect of this, but our ability to work with partners in the community, and to extend our reach beyond, where we are able to on our own through relationships, through partnerships, with organizations and people who are embedded in the communities, or embedded with individuals who are less able to engage with Permanent.org on their home computer or on their personal device, or who maybe don't trust the process or don't understand the process.
I think there's so many barriers that we can overcome to reach all people and that's something that we're committed to as a nonprofit organization. Just as a closing thought on of shifting the paradigm, I think some folks fear that the digital dark ages, that having everything digital might actually be putting us at risk. I'm less worried about the fact that we might have our current moment less well documented than we had, say, a moment, a hundred, or a thousand years ago. I think it's not about how well documented this moment is, I think it's about who gets documented, who gets preserved, democratizing access to the tools of preservation, to the tools of history, so everyone can contribute and then guaranteeing that stuff was gonna be there.
And there is a shift happening today, and it's a shift in maybe the wrong direction, where as we've given up our relationship to our personal possessions, to our data, to the things who make us who we are, and gone from this sort of ownership model in favor of a streaming model where we rent or stream or borrow essentially everything that we engage with. That's actually making it more difficult to preserve individual stories because you no longer own the things that you're buying on the internet.
Whereas, there might be thousands of copies of a book in print on different shelves in different people's homes, when you have a digital library that's owned by another company then, and not by you, that's really centralizing that information, not in thousands of libraries, but in a single library.
And so, how do we empower individuals to preserve their digital materials, their personal records, the things that tell their story about who they are in a place where their access will never be revoked, where they can really own a digital copy of whatever it is and then they can pass that on to future generations. That's a big shift in the historical paradigm and how we understand all people being a part of it and how we can use digital technology to achieve it, because right now it's not guaranteed to shift in the right direction.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. And, I think that people are very aware of some of the issues that you're bringing up around like, when things are accessible, when they're not, when agreements can't be made, when companies and organizations fold.
And so, I wanna talk a little bit about the sustainability of Permanent, kind of piggybacking on what you just said, because we get a lot of questions about that because people are paying attention to what's going on in the digital realm and the tech spaces and how it affects their data and access to data. So, would you mind talking a little bit about our sustainability model?
Robert Friedman: Yeah. I think there's a misconception out there, first of all, that nonprofits are irresponsible or not competitive or not well structured. And, having been in this sector for a really long time, and in the innovation space, in the technology space, private businesses, they close down all the time. They go bankrupt, they go under, they go under new management. It is much more common to see a new restaurant or a new clothing store, downtown or in the mall, come and go, than it is to see a local YMCA or other sort of nonprofit community member do the same.
Nonprofits are quite resilient, and there's a lot of mechanisms built into that, especially when they're structured to take advantage of all of the benefits that being a nonprofit can provide.
Our sustainability model, how Permanent ensures that we remain sustainable, is founded really on five pillars, that are quite common to long-lived nonprofit organizations. When you think about museums, libraries, religious organizations, and I could go on and on, but the kind of bedrock nonprofit institutions that you never worry about being here tomorrow, they operate in a similar way.
So, for us, our mission is the number one most important pillar, because it really guides our direction.
And our nonprofit status, which is sort of the second pillar, limits our ability to deviate from our mission in any way.
Then as a nonprofit, we're also able to operate an endowment. And our particular endowment model, how we've set up our micro-endowment concept, is a innovative and unique way to leverage the endowment for the kind of things I was talking about, about, this digital preservation problem. That's our third pillar.
Our fourth pillar is being on an open-source technology stack, not relying on proprietary technology, but rather building in the open, utilizing open source. We use technology that's maintained by communities, not individuals.
And most importantly, is our Byte4Byte program, which is our grant making program, is our program that enables us to bring more partners and build a bigger community of resilient nonprofit organizations to do this work. By building that community through the Byte4Byte program, it takes us from being some kind of solo operation, that's trying to carry this burden on our own shoulders alone, towards one that's part of a web, an ecosystem of inner reliant organizations.
And so, these are sort of the five pillars, Byte4Byte program being the fifth. There's a lot to say about these five pillars. I think if I'm gonna be as concise as possible, our mission around preservation means that every decision we make when we are building product is about the ability for the data that's been put into our position to endure. And so every time we need to make a choice, about how we're gonna spend our money, about how we're gonna spend our time, we're making it by first asking the question of, "Will this help us preserve the digital legacy of all people or not?"
And then our non-for-profit status is not just a tax break or tax incentive, it means that there is no private individual standing to benefit from the success of Permanent. There's no owner. Yes, Dean was the founder. He created the nonprofit, but he doesn't own it. Our donors contribute, but they don't own it. I'm the executive director, I'm not the owner. And our board governs our organization, but none of them are investors or owners in it. And so the ability for any individual to make a decision that doesn't align with our mission, the ability for anybody to profit by short selling our mission or selling it off to another company with a different mission, these things are much less likely to happen or impossible because of that nonprofit structure.
Our endowment is an investment, so pillar three. Our endowment is an investment. where we put our storage fees and some of our donations, especially donations to the Byte4Byte program. And our endowment is not meant to be spent. It's meant to be saved. And it's structured in such a way that when you buy storage on Permanent, we don't spend your storage fees on operating costs. We save your storage fees in our endowment and we only spend the earnings that we get, the annual returns that we earn on that savings, on that investment. So we're never depleting. It's an insurance policy that helps Permanent persist, without worrying about having misspent funds in the short term or without being able to liquidate and transfer in a sales scenario, like with a for-profit, being sold off.
Open source, there's a lot to say about open source. Building in the open, using open-source software, makes our technology stack less vulnerable, and puts us in a community of similar -minded technology companies as opposed to a black box that might be at risk or prone to risk in ways that people do not understand.
And then finally Byte4Byte. I've said a little bit about it as a granting program. I've said a little bit about how it engages us in the community and really how being a part of an ecosystem improves our sustainability.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, we can talk a little bit more about the Byte4Byte program. The Byte4Byte program really aims to support small grassroots organizations and nonprofits and people doing community archiving in a way that, like you said, dovetails nicely with our mission. We can't fulfill our mission without our Byte4Byte partners because we can't possibly reach every individual that we would want to reach and preserve the legacy of all people without them. So, it feels extremely critical to our mission to work with a wide range of people and organizations who are doing this work in their communities.
And people doing this work in their local communities are the best ones to do it because they know their communities. And, they know how to preserve materials in a way that really honors their history and keeps that safe and sacred for future generations.
Robert Friedman: Yeah. That expertise that our partners bring that we could never, be a big enough and inclusive enough and diverse enough organization to do all ourselves, is essential to reaching all people as we've talked about. And they're also as small, relatively small, nonprofit organizations distributed around the country, however resilient they are, they're resource limited.
And the ability to manage your own digital preservation system, find the right software, run it on the right machines, use it in the right ways, and keep those resources safe from any kind of risk, environmental or otherwise, that's an intensive process for any one small nonprofit that really wants to focus on oral history or curating cultural artifacts or publishing a zine, or helping others do family history projects. That's where they wanna focus on. And they don't have a preservation or archival department. They may not even have anyone who would consider themselves tech savvy on the team.
One of the things that we learned when we were early on just exploring the space and trying to understand how we could help, where we could fit, was the realization that many, many, many of these organizations exist, so many we've only scratched the surface, and they are not well served by the existing storage solutions on the internet and so that we could help them.
Not only could we help individuals and families, but we could also help these groups and by doing so, reach more people. I think that reciprocal benefit where we can provide some of the technical services they can't afford or maintain on their own, but they can provide us reach into communities and into cultural heritage repositories that we could never ourselves. That's a really powerful relationship that you don't always find and I value it deeply. That's why I emphasize that it is an important part of our sustainability model, because that's such a robust relationship. The more of those we have, the less fragile we become and that's really a powerful thing.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I definitely agree. And we're strengthening Permanent's mission and we're also strengthening our partner's missions, whatever they are within their communities, when they also start preserving their histories and reaching out to people, members of their community and getting them to take ownership of their own stories and whatnot.
Yeah, that was beautifully said, Robert.
Robert Friedman: Oh, thank you.
Amanda Meeks: So I know that Byte4Byte is a big part of our endowment and that includes storage grants. It also includes internships for library science students and archival students to work with Byte4Byte partners and really help them create lasting archives.
And so, I just wanna mention that the funds donated to Byte4Byte really help support organizations like the ones you mentioned that might not have the infrastructure, the expertise, et cetera, because we are able to work with interns and not only provide our partners with a valuable experience of getting their archives up and running, but also provide some students with really valuable professional experience with organizations that they might not otherwise get to work with, but in many cases are very value aligned.
So that's another important aspect that I'll just throw in there.
Robert Friedman: Yeah, so Permanent's funding structure is currently and for as long as I can see into the future, dominated by two funding streams. There are donations and there are storage fees. Donations can come in the form of private donations, large or small, and grants from other foundations or philanthropies, whereas storage fees are the individual fees that members pay per gigabyte, $10 per gigabyte, to access digital storage on Permanent.org. With every storage fee we collect, guaranteed that goes into the endowment. So we don't take that $10 and spend it, we save it. We use the passive income off of our endowment to actually operate our system.
And so, the primary purpose of the endowment is to save to pay for digital storage and web hosting services that make the storage accessible, so uploading and downloading and preserving and storing, that's the primary purpose of the endowment for every storage fee collected.
But when we receive donations, those can be applied in many different ways and when they're applied to the Byte4Byte program, what we're doing is we're treating them almost as storage fees. We're taking donations to the Byte4Byte program, we're also putting those in the endowment, and we're earmarking those and then giving the value of that donation to a nonprofit organization so that they can have storage that they can use to preserve stories that are important to them.
So, the endowment preserves individual and family stories where people are paying storage fees for it. It also preserves storage for nonprofit organizations.
But the beautiful thing about passive income and the endowment is that it is possible to earn more money than we need, through the endowment to pay for those basic services, it is possible to start to accumulate a surplus, and to grow. And then as a nonprofit organization, we have the ability to re-grant that money, in the form of stipends for interns or research projects for historians or for nonprofit organizations.
So, the endowment is used to pay for the basic storage and access, web hosting services that we need, just to keep things preserved indefinitely. But as the endowment grows, and in excess of what's needed for that, we can do a great number of philanthropic things.
And then of course, individual donations that are not earmarked specifically for the Byte4Byte program or for the endowment can also be spent right there and then on these services. So sometimes donations are spent on an intern right there and then directly, without waiting for it to grow over time, but rather using that donation right there and then.
So all storage fees, all donations earmarked for Byte4Byte, those go to our endowment. But donations that are made, just generally speaking for us to be able to use in any way, are also used for philanthropic benefit and, you know, paying staff salaries as well.
Again, our mission is to preserve and make accessible to the digital legacy of all people and that's why the endowment is such a foundational and key bit, is it is set up with the mission in mind. But then, when we wanna do more ambitious things outside of that core, you know, how do we really answer the question of "how do we reach all people?" that's the hardest part of the mission and an endowment can't do that alone.
Programs and services and people and investments have to do that. And so that's where excess endowment funds or where individual donations can go and make a difference. Some of the most interesting things Permanent is doing is in thinking about how we use the traditional models of nonprofit financing and management and archives and records and libraries and museums, how we use that traditional, but extremely well understood, studied and effective history of the body of work, but extended into this new technical vision, this new digital world, how do we bring those technologies and bring them into concert with some of these just, you know, traditional bread and butter nonprofit methodologies.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I have one more question.
Robert Friedman: Sure.
Amanda Meeks: I'm super excited about all the things that we can do with growing the endowment, and I think that it's fun to have a little bit of blue sky thinking around that type of stuff.
One question that I like to ask a lot of our guests is about the future of our digital lives. So when you envision Permanent a hundred years from now, what ideally have our efforts around cultural heritage preservation done for society or even the world?
Robert Friedman: Yeah, it's a question I think as a team we often ask ourselves at like team retreats or, icebreakers on Fridays or something when we get together for team meetings. And there's just so many incredible ideas and options and ways to answer that question, because of course, what do we know?
The future is a hundred years from now, difficult to imagine. I don't think folks a hundred years ago could imagine precisely where we're today. But the thing that I believe we all hope and strive for is a better understanding of who we are, and where we came from, and how we fit. And some of why that is so important is because how we understand ourselves, the context we believe we live in, is so influential in how we imagine what we're capable of, of our potential.
I think when we limit people to very incomplete ideas about who we are and where we came from and who came before us and how people thought, we also limit how people imagine their futures and what's and what's possible.
If I had a vision for the future and what preservation has done to society or the world where we have achieved the shift in the historical paradigm where all people have had a chance to have their legacy preserved, future students and historians can access the individual stories of multitudes of people.
That's really abstract, but what I imagine that means for a young person in school, is that they can question and find evidence to challenge any narrative of the past. That they themselves never have to wonder, "Where did I come from?" and " I wonder what my grandparents were like?" or "I wonder what my great-grandparents were like?"
It's a powerful vision to imagine a young person who is untethered from the narrow vision other people have for them, the stereotypes people have about them. I do think it comes from a better understanding of who you are and where you came from, that comes from a connection to the people who came before you, to know that there are more people like you who have lived before, even if not today or where you are right now.
It's impossible to imagine that without a data set, without the legacies of the people who live behind them being available and accessible without our mission. It's hard to imagine that future without our mission.
We live in gray areas where sometimes we're the winners and sometimes we're the losers, we're sometimes. I think being able to peer into an individual's life, to their experience and see that gray area, to see the diversity and to see that the world was not just blue and red in 2023 or the United States at least, but that there were more complicated factors at play, people whose voices were not even part of that conversation. That's an incredibly powerful thing that I have never experienced in my life and I wish for my children. So, it's a little, a little abstract, but like, you know, I want somebody to be able to look at how someone lived in 2023 and not see it as a Coke versus Pepsi view of life.
But see it more as the supermarket aisle of juices and drinks is very diverse, and people make unique choices that you would, could never imagine. Someone's buying that beet juice at HEB. I don't know who it is, but knowing that you're part of a community or there are people who have made similar choices to yours, but don't look exactly like you or don't think exactly like you in every single way, I think that's a powerful way to untether ourselves from that really narrow view.
Amanda Meeks: Wonderful. Thank you so much for being this month's guest and sharing a little bit about Permanent and Byte4Byte and how our sustainability model works. I feel like the listeners are going to get so much out of this and will hopefully be inspired to donate to our end of year campaign.
Robert Friedman: Thank you for bringing that up. We'll be trying our first attempt at sort of an end of year campaign this winter. We'll be reaching out to our members to see if they're interested in supporting not just their own personal archives, but also our mission, more broadly through Byte4Byte and other work that we do.
I really appreciate you taking some time to talk to me today, Amanda, and asking me these great questions and letting me go off the rails a little bit there at the end. So.
Amanda Meeks: Thanks, Robert.
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Our Digital Futures on Permanent and our mission driven work as a nonprofit.
For mission driven organizations like Permanent, it can be challenging to articulate what makes us sustainable, trustworthy, and different from other tech entities. We hope you are inspired to donate to our endowment, purchase storage, or share Permanent with friends and family. Fulfilling our mission is only possible with support from partners such as those in the Byte4Byte program and members like you.
The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations. Our web and mobile app, Permanent.Org, is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely, without recurring subscription fees. Your generous donations to our endowment ensure our long-term sustainability as an organization while also securing your legacy.
Special thank you to our editor Emily Sienkiewicz. See you next time.
Dr. Robert Friedmanhe/him
Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.