A prominent computer scientist once quipped, “digital media lasts forever or five years – whichever comes sooner.”
This was the late 1990s and a handful of stories about lost or nearly irretrievable data raised alarm in some circles. The twin-issues of preserving data and being able to make sense of it five, ten, or 100 years later was starting to be understood.
Alarm was raised, justifiably, that we were in the midst of a “digital dark age” where much of our record as a civilization was in threat of being lost in an unprecedentedly short time. And there was plenty of anecdotal evidence to stoke these fears.
As technology advanced at the furious pace of the 1980s, 90s and the new millennium, storage devices and file formats became obsolete in a matter of a couple years or, in some cases, months. How many SyQuest disks or 5.25” floppy disks containing WordStar or MultiPlan documents are optimistically stored in closets hoping that, should the need arise, the data could still be retrieved and interpreted in a meaningful way? How is it that the Dead Sea Scrolls, recorded on parchment and papyrus and stored in clay pots in a cave for 2,000 years, are still partially decipherable, but those masterpiece term papers I stored on a floppy disk when I was in college are completely irretrievable?