If I were to dig out my father’s school days’ journals from the 1950s, packed away in a forgotten metal trunk, draped in sheets of dust, I’d be able to save them from perishing.
Their pages, though brittle, sepia-toned, the penmanship fading, could still be preserved digitally, if attempted. Modern scanning technology has made that possible.
But documents created, say, in the late 1980s, in microwave oven-size computers, in nascent word-processing software, though of a much recent origin, would be far more difficult to retrieve today.
Ironically, that’s due to the searing pace of innovation. Computer technology has come a long, long way since the 1970s and so has all related paraphernalia. The alacritous leap from the flat, plate-like floppy disks and CD-ROMS to the much more compact U.S.B. flash drives and memory cards has taken place in a relatively short span of time—within about three decades.
But while the digital storage media, in themselves, have survived, the machines that could read and decode them have disappeared, leaving behind mounds of “born-digital” materials—those that were initially created in the electronic format —that are off-limits for the time being.
Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and non-fiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits—0’s and 1’s—written on floppy disks, CDs, and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper.
Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0’s and 1’s simply don’t exist anymore.
Think about owning a record, but no record player.
Unless, we’re able to find a way of accessing and saving the intellectual output of thinkers who never [wrote or typed on] paper, it may be lost to future generations of scholars. We may well be faced with what some have called a “Digital Dark Age.”