Will High-Tech Produce a Black Hole in Our History?

I have always written articles on subjects that interested me, observations I have made, etc.  I took a touch-typing class in 10th grade, and got my first typewriter, an Adler Satellite (electric!) when I went to college in 1969.  I started using computers in 1970, and that only made writing easier.  As time has progressed I have written almost constantly, storing my writings on whatever media was current, and that’s where the problem begins.

A couple of times recently I have searched for a series of humorous articles I wrote in the ’90’s, which were last seen on a floppy disk after they were “reaped” from the website (once only a bbs, www.grex.org) where I posted them.  Somewhere in my garage is a large box half-full of mostly 3.5″ floppies, but with some 5 1/4″ disks as well.  I also have several tapes from different mainframes and minicomputers I used in earlier years, containing lots of stuff I wished to save.  Now I am faced with the possibility that I’m already unable to get to much of that information, and my aging laptop will probably be my last chance to recover those articles from the 3.5″ floppy disk containing them.

This is a problem that prompts me to ask the question: how much of our history will we lose to our rapid technological progress?  In twenty years, will we be basically unable to retrieve a major part of our legacy information from the 1970’s forward?

Not only are the facilities to read the old media and formats constantly being retired to the landfills, but today’s media such as CDs and DVDs have shorter lifespans than previous media.  The other day I recorded to a CD that was perhaps three or four years old, and it turned out later to be unreadable.  When I was removing it from the drive I found bits of shiny metal on my fingers – it was delaminating badly (a “coaster”, we used to say, as that’s all the things are good for).  Studies have shown recordable CD-R’s to be good for no more than ten years, with the cheaper, lower quality RW types can become coasters in as little as two or three years. 

Contrast this with good old bound-paper technology.  My cousin has a family bible from the 15th century, still readable, as are the penciled names of family members inside the covers and along the margins.  Now, that’s history. 

The books my father collected in the 1930’s through the 1960’s are brown and crumbling due to the acid-paper problem.  They are still readable (if handled carefully)  70 years later, but may well be dust in a couple more decades. 

Today we are saving less and less information in truly-durable formats, and that means less of our history.  I’m already struggling to retrieve information that I produced and saved ten years ago.  In twenty, fifty, or a hundred years, will there be a black hole – a gap – in our history where we either can’t read the information, or where it no longer exists at all? 

Additional info (Feb. 5, 2008):  With the help of a friend who is a “genius programmer” type I was able to retrieve a bunch of webpages I published in 1998, ten years ago, using a website called the “Wayback Machine” (link). I had thought they were gone for good, as the 3.5″ floppy diskette they are on is buried somewhere among boxes of old media in my garage (storage locker, or somewhere), mixed in with every kind of media from 5.25 and 8 inch floppies to 9 and 12″ mag tapes (there are a few of the U-matic tapes in there, too). I was amazed my pages were still stored somewhere, as my account was “reaped” from the original server for lack of use quite a few years ago.

Still, it’s only a glimmer of hope, as information stored on media, and which never made it to the web, will of course be much more at risk.  Protect your historical information or lose it!


3 responses to “Will High-Tech Produce a Black Hole in Our History?

  1. Hey Tim,

    I don’t know if you have ever read anything by or about Stewart Brand, but I think you would be interested in him. He has very good ideas about the digital dark age. I will try and get you an interview that I read with him that I thought was very good.



  2. http://www.longnow.org/about/

    Take a look at this website it might help you with some more ideas.

  3. Thanks, Chris. I will be interested to see that.

    The perception behind what I wrote above is that, while the Egyptians wrote in stone, which lasts thousands of years, and Gutenberg and those following him produced printed books that can last centuries (except for the acid-processed paper of the 20th century), digital media (magnetic tape and disks, optical disks) seem to be good for years to decades, and need special electronic technology to read. As a result, a thousand years from now people will still be able to read the inscriptions on the pyramids, and perhaps a few books, but digital media will be long gone.

    Photography has followed a similar pattern. A friend of mine, a photographer, worked for some time on a platinum photo printing process he says is good for 500 years, while silver prints are good for perhaps 200 years at most, and the color print process of the 20th century is good for less than a century. Of course, digital photography is susceptible to the same rapid degradation as other computer media. In short, our great technological advances have not addressed longevity of the media, and our history appears to be at risk. I hope someone can prove to me I am wrong.

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