(Roughly) Daily

“All that mankind has done, thought or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books”*…

… But books (and their predecessors) are fragile, and need special archival care if they are to survive. That’s even truer, as Adrienne Bernhard explains in The Long Now Foundation‘s newsletter, of digital data and documents…

The Dead Sea scrolls, made of parchment and papyrus, are still readable nearly two millennia after their creation — yet the expected shelf life of a DVD is about 100 years. Several of Andy Warhol’s doodles, created and stored on a Commodore Amiga computer in the 01980s, were forever stranded there in an obsolete format. During a data-migration in 02019, millions of songs, videos and photos were lost when MySpace — once the Internet’s leading social network — fell prey to an irreversible data loss.

A false sense of security persists surrounding digitized documents: because an infinite number of identical copies can be made of any original, most of us believe that our electronic files have an indefinite shelf life and unlimited retrieval opportunities. In fact, preserving the world’s online content is an increasing concern, particularly as file formats (and the hardware and software used to run them) become scarce, inaccessible, or antiquated, technologies evolve, and data decays. Without constant maintenance and management, most digital information will be lost in just a few decades. Our modern records are far from permanent.

Obstacles to data preservation are generally divided into three broad categories: hardware longevity (e.g., a hard drive that degrades and eventually fails); format accessibility (a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk formatted with a filesystem that can’t be read by a new laptop); and comprehensibility (a document with a long-abandoned file type that can’t be interpreted by any modern machine). The problem is compounded by encryption (data designed to be inaccessible) and abundance (deciding what among the vast human archive of stored data is actually worth preserving).

The looming threat of the so-called “Digital Dark Age”, accelerated by the extraordinary growth of an invisible commodity — data — suggests we have fallen from a golden age of preservation in which everything of value was saved. In fact, countless records of previous historical eras have all but disappeared. The first Dark Ages, shorthand for the period beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and stretching into the Middle Ages (00500-01000 CE), weren’t actually characterized by intellectual and cultural emptiness but rather by a dearth of historical documentation produced during that era.

Even institutions built for the express purpose of information preservation have succumbed to the ravages of time, natural disaster or human conquest. The famous library of Alexandria, one of the most important repositories of knowledge in the ancient world, eventually faded into obscurity. Built in the fourth century B.C., the library flourished for some six centuries, an unparalleled center of intellectual pursuit. Alexandria’s archive was said to contain half a million papyrus scrolls — the largest collection of manuscripts in the ancient world — including works by Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Herodotus. By the fifth century A.D., however, the majority of its collections had been stolen or destroyed, and the library fell into disrepair.

Digital archives are no different. The durability of the web is far from guaranteed. Link rot, in which outdated links lead readers to dead content (or a cheeky dinosaur icon), sets in like a pestilence. Corporate data sets are often abandoned when a company folds, left to sit in proprietary formats that no one without the right combination of hardware, software, and encryption keys can access. Scientific data is a particularly thorny problem: unless it’s saved to a public repository accessible to other researchers, technical information essentially becomes unusable or lost. Beyond switching to analog alternatives, which have their own drawbacks, how might we secure our digital information so that it survives for generations? How can individuals, private corporations and public entities coordinate efforts to ensure that their data is saved in more resilient formats?…

Without maintenance, most digital information will be lost in just a few decades. How might we secure our data so that it survives for generations? “Shining a Light on the Digital Dark Age,” from @AdrienneEve and @longnow. Eminently worth reading in full.

C.F. also: “Very Long-Term Backup” by Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly).

* Thomas Carlyle


As we ponder preservation, we might recall that the #1 song in the U.S. and the U.K. (among other territories) was the Beatles’ “Help!” (their fourth of six #1 singles in a row on the American charts).


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