Digital Decay: Should historians be worried?

Here’s a major technological challenge that might face the next generation of historians. Everybody is at risk of losing old digital files. According to the internet pioneer and vice-president of Google, Vint Cerf, speaking recently at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, society may soon face what he termed ‘bit rot’. Other experts have also referred to ‘digital decay’.

What is this precisely? Large amounts of digitised material, such as blogs, tweets, photographs, videos and emails, could be lost forever because the computer programmes needed to view them will become defunct. This, of course, has enormous implications. Cerf warned that society’s initial steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, and we faced a ‘forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century’ because of the nature of ‘bit rot’.

Indeed, future generations of historians may struggle to fully understand our present-day society because technology is advancing so rapidly that old files may become inaccessible.

Cerf explained: ‘When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear we stand to lose an awful lot of our history’. He added: ‘We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future’. In some cases, older technologies are being lost already. Old digital imagery, where there are old coding techniques, is not necessarily recognised in the latest modern software.

Cerf’s rather gloomy warnings certainly made me sit up and listen. My research in contemporary history has entailed working on late 20th and early 21st century official files, especially in archives such as The National Archives at Kew. Increasingly, the more one works on such material, the more one begins to see the very beginnings of the impact of the digital revolution on official government documents, such as departmental files, memoranda and other types of communication. Civil servants, for example, increasingly make use of emails for communications, as do vast numbers of people in everyday life. Within government, of course, there are certain guidelines in place designed to preserve at least some of this material. But, more generally, how many of us actually keep all our emails, or print off important ones?

The end of archives as we know them? Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

The end of archives as we know them? Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

In the average workplace, leaving aside the pressures on us to be environmentally friendly and not create lots of ‘unnecessary’ paperwork, when we carry out a digital ‘cull’ of old emails, do we give much thought to what might be worth preserving for the future? What may seem trivial to us today might be something of a goldmine to historians in years to come. But even that which we do choose to keep, if Cerf is correct, might still be lost!

From my perspective, there has already been a noticeable decline in ‘hard-copy’ forms of record-keeping and other types of primary sources, such as basic letter-writing, hand-written diaries or manually-typed notes on paper. In addition, more and more material is being transferred into digital form, especially newspapers, visual records, and tape-recordings of oral testimony. This has been extremely helpful to the historian in many ways; it has, for example, made large amounts of material directly available online, often removing the need to physically go into archives to consult the original copies (although, personally, I still get great satisfaction from doing just that!).  However, if Cerf is right about ‘bit rot’, we may be facing what he called ‘an information black hole’ in the future.

What solutions might there be? Cerf warned that there is a problem developing with society’s ability to preserve and run software over long periods of time. He called for the development of ‘digital vellum’ to preserve old software and hardware so that files that have become out-of-date could be recovered, no matter how old they are. He is recommending the creation of a system that will not only store a digital format but also preserve details of the software and operating system needed to access it, so that the whole thing could be faithfully recreated in the future.

In the meantime, he recommends that we print important documents and make hard-copies, especially of treasured photographs, to avoid losing them through outdated operating systems: ‘If there are pictures that you really, really care about, then creating a physical instance is probably a good idea. Print them out, literally’. Moreover, Cerf said that, while it is unclear what might be the most important data of our current generation, it remains important to try and preserve as much as possible.

There are some reasons for optimism, though. Archivists at the National Archives have placed much thought recently into developing formal policies on digital preservation. Broadcasting services such as the BBC have also carried interesting articles exploring the problem. Similarly, scholars such as Tim Hitchcock are increasingly urging us to ‘confront the digital’ when it comes to questions concerning the durability of digital collections. This is real food for thought.

Steve Woodbridge is a Lecturer in History at Kingston University

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One Response to Digital Decay: Should historians be worried?

  1. mitokirchner says:

    If we accept the ‚bit rot‘ as a mainly technical challenge, we might although want to consider how available any technical solution to the problem is going to be. It might be the case, that only institutions with considerable economic and technological resources get to choose wether they make certain parts of their digital data durable or not. Many people might have little to no influence on wether the digital representations of their lives are going to be sources for future historians not. Taking into account the interest of todays historical research it is fair to assume, that our future colleagues will want to use exactly these kind of sources, which point to the everyday culture of communication of our times.

    It’s true that historians of every age have to face the fact, that more or less powerful institutions got to choose, which documents got the chance to become part of history. Nevertheless we are now lucky to look back at early modern and modern times of which we have written sources originating from a relative broad social variety of writers. These documents became sources with or without the intention of their authors. It could be that, due to the ‚bit rot‘, future historians are going to be thrown back to sources, which have been chosen by a small group technological potent curators. That would constitute a stark contrast between the current assessment of digital media, which are said to enable broad participation in communication relative free of hierarchy, and their representation in historical sources.

    On the other hand future historians might not even share the dream of current collectors and users of ‚big data‘ and detailed personal information. It is already barely the goal of todays research to ‚fully understand‘ any given society. On that note I tend to believe that we – historians or not – should be aware of ‚bit rot‘ and its possible consequences, but we don’t need to be worried in one respect: Future historians will have their questions and find their answers anyway.

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