Compact discs won’t skip. They’ll play even if you scratch them. Unless you break them or set them on fire, they’ll last forever. That’s the sales pitch the recording industry used to convince America to switch from vinyl records to CDs.
But, as anyone who owns a hairy dog or cat knows, CDs do skip. And as anyone who uses them to store computer files knows, digital data stored on them eventually vanishes in a mysterious phenomenon called “data rot.” “With proper care this Compact Disc will last a lifetime,” promised the packaging on the first digital recordings. Now experts wonder whether they’ll make it 20 years.
Without discussion or debate humanity has committed itself to the wholesale digitalization of its collective cultural and historical information base. Music, movies, manuscripts, everything from letters between presidents to merchants’ financial transactions are currently created and stored in strictly digital form—a development that fulfills George Orwell’s prophecy that history would become mutable, now with a few keystrokes. Even more terrifying than the likelihood that the digitalization of history will be abused in the service of tyranny is the certainty that we are setting the stage for the greatest loss of knowledge since the destruction of the Royal Library at Alexandria.
Data is created in a bewildering variety of programs, even within the same type of application (say, word processing). Few are interchangeable, differing operating systems conflict within the same program, and they go out of date with alarming speed. Files created in WordPerfect, until fairly recently the nation’s dominant word processing program, are quickly becoming as irretrievable as ragtime songs recorded on brown wax phonograph cylinders.
It is conceivable that a few librarians will keep around some antique Wangs and Commodore 64s in order to access digital archives. And a tiny proportion of data will be transferred and adapted to successor formats. But for most computer users, data created on obsolete software and hardware might as well have never existed.
There are two kinds of digital data storage media: magnetic and optical. Zip and Jaz discs, heirs to the floppies of the 1990s, get corrupted from “magnetic particle instability,” “tape lubricant loss,” “self-demagnetization,” and exposure to electromagnetic devices (like computers and other electronic gadgets). Once you hear what Zip disc users call the “click of death,” it’s over. Digital data works on the pass/fail basis: it’s either all available or it’s all gone.
Recordable CDs and DVDs have mostly replaced magnetic storage devices. But those go bad too. CDs and DVDs, explains USA Today tech writer Andrew Cantor, “have two layers encased in clear plastic: a reflective layer and a transparent dye layer. When you ‘burn’ a disc, your CD or DVD writer fires a laser at that dye to create dark spots that don’t let the reflective coating shine through. Your computer reads the dark and reflective spots as the ones and zeros of your data. But some dyes are better than others. After a while those burned-in opaque spots start to get less opaque. The disc fails.”
It is impossible to fathom how much of our cultural patrimony has been lost to the failings of analog storage devices. Paper burns, film disintegrates, canvas molders. But there are two crucial differences between these pre-digital formats and what we’re leaving future generations of historians.
First, analog isn’t pass/fail. You can see, and possibly restore, a stained or faded photograph. Moreover, while the majority of books printed 400 years ago have been destroyed, a few remain. Those survivors provide a tantalizing glimpse into the larger lost history. Had they been stored digitally, however, the loss would have been total: Every word of every last one would have succumbed to data rot.
Is there an alternative? Cantor says yes: “For long-term storage of documents, you can’t beat paper.”
This is an issue like global warming, one with such devastating implications and calling for such Herculean solutions that most people would rather not think about it. And like global warming, it’s a problem that we simply have to solve.
Our ancestors left us records describing how they lived, starting with the clay tablets of hieroglyphs that ancient Sumerians used as sales receipts on up through FDR’s personal letters to Churchill (typed on paper, with several carbon copies for redundant storage in scattered government warehouses). We owe the same to those whose past is our present. Government and business must lead the way.
Unless we start backing up and storing everything of importance on more reliable media like paper and photographic film, however, we will betray that obligation. Our songs, our stories, our controversies, the rich tapestry of life at this particular place at this particular time will all be lost. We’ll be dead; worse than that, it will be as if we had never existed. MTW