One of the advantages of being older than 30 is having a slim electronic record of your adolescence. In the days when cameras were too bulky to fit in the palm of your hand and the cost of film made candid shots a luxury, few moments of teen stupidity endured beyond the moment.
Now there are voluntary and involuntary records of almost everything-a fact most teens savor until they start looking for a job. The ironic thing is those hefty collections of images and video may fade faster than the relatively few photographs that haunt those born before 1980.
What stands a better chance of surviving 50 years from now: a framed photograph or a 10-megabyte digital photo file on your computer’s hard drive? The framed photograph will inevitably fade and yellow over time, but the digital photo file may be unreadable to future computers.
The computer files may survive but the equipment to make sense of them might not, ultimately leading to a “digital dark age”-a part of our current collective memories forever lost. Because of ever-shifting platforms and file formats, much of the data we produce today could eventually fall into a black hole of inaccessibility.
You may have noticed that any files you carefully recorded on 5 l/4″ floppy disks a few years ago are now unreadable. Not only have those disk drives disappeared, but so have the programs, operating systems and machines that wrote the files (WordStar in CP/M on a Kaypro?).
Your files may be intact, but they are as unrecoverable as if they never existed. The same is true of Landsat satellite data from the 1960s and early 1970s on countless reels of now-unreadable magnetic tape. All of the early pioneer computer work at labs such as MIT Artificial Intelligence is similarly lost, no matter how carefully it was recorded at the time. The pioneer work of today is just as doomed, because the rate of digital obsolescence keeps accelerating.
There has never been a time of such drastic and irretrievable information loss as right now.
That may be a relief to young adults who cringe when they stumble upon images of their questionable decisions on spring break. But it could create agonizing problems for librarians, archivists, historians-and even real estate brokers trying to trace the ownership of select pieces of property.
The challenge is deciding how masses of machine-generated, machine-read material are stored in a form that is safe, secure from degradation and – potentially most calamitous in the long term – accessible to subsequent generations. “If we can’t keep today’s information alive for future generations,” Jerome P. McDonough, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, warns, we’ll “lose a lot of our culture.”
Many of our digital records arguable show we’ve already lost a lot of culture. But like them or not, they say something about who we are-just like those stilted photographs from the 1800s or the embarrassing snapshots from our youth.