Avoiding a Digital Dark Age
Data longevity depends on both the storage medium and the ability to decipher the information
When I was a boy, I discovered a magnetic reel-to-reel audio tape recorder that my father had used to create “audio letters” to my mother while he was serving in the Vietnam War. To my delight (and his horror), I could listen to many of the old tapes he had made a decade before. Even better, I could make recordings myself and listen to them. However, all of my father’s tapes were decaying to some degree—flaking, stretching and breaking when played. It was clear that these tapes would not last forever, so I copied a few of them to new cassette tapes. While playing back the cassettes, I noticed that some of the sound quality was lost in the copying process. I wondered how many times I could make a copy before there was nothing left but a murky hiss.
A decade later in the 1980s I was in high school making backups of the hard drive of my PC onto 5-¼-inch floppy disks. I thought that because digital copies were “perfect,” and I could make perfect copies of perfect copies, I couldn’t lose my data, except by accident. I continued to believe that until years later in college, when I tried to restore my backup of 70 floppy disks onto a new PC. To my dismay, I discovered that I had lost the floppy disk containing the backup program itself, and thus could not restore my data. Some investigation revealed that the company that made the software had long since gone out of business. Requests on electronic bulletin board systems and searches on Usenet turned up nothing useful. Although all of the data on them may have survived, my disks were useless because of the proprietary encoding scheme used by my backup program.
The Dead Sea scrolls, made out of still-readable parchment and papyrus, are believed to have been created more than 2,000 years ago. Yet my barely 10-year-old digital floppy disks were essentially lost. I was furious! How had the shiny new world of digital data, which I had been taught was so superior to the old “analog” world, failed me? I wondered: Had I had simply misplaced my faith, or was I missing something?
Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, an increasing proportion of the information we create and use has been in the form of digital data. Many (most?) of us have given up writing messages on paper, instead adopting electronic formats, and have exchanged film-based photographic cameras for digital ones. Will those precious family photographs and letters—that is, email messages—created today survive for future generations, or will they suffer a sad fate like my backup floppy disks? It seems unavoidable that most of the data in our future will be digital, so it behooves us to understand how to manage and preserve digital data so we can avoid what some have called the “digital dark age.” This is the idea—or fear!—that if we cannot learn to explicitly save our digital data, we will lose that data and, with it, the record that future generations might use to remember and understand us.