The Fragility of Immortality: An Inquiry into Digital Preservation Techniques

by Cassandra Haley


Up this week in class: a discussion on storing and maintaining digital information, and how it differs to that of more traditional, un-digitized information sources (i.e. books, for anyone that engrossed in their iPhone).

These days, the study of digital humanities is largely focused around the ides of accessibility and open sourcing for an eagerly awaiting public. Digital technologies, being so easy to share over the Internet, are thought to be the complete solution to the problem of spreading information to every corner of the world.

However, one question that is often easily (and conveniently) ignored is that of the ease for the receiver to access. If you send a person a copy of an article through an email, for example, there are several large assumptions that you, as the sender, sharer, purveyor of open sourcing are thus making. First of all, for that receiver to view the document, video or audio file, the person must be in possession of hardware, software and some kind of computer interface to view the document. There are so many integral pieces to sharing the information though the digital platform that we have been unconsciously overlooking.

The bridge to information is ever longer with digital technology

Is it truly easier to send information this way, with so many prerequisite technologies that precede the actual viewing and attaining of the information? Back before the digital revolution, when information was (predominantly) shared by lending out books, there were not nearly as many barriers to overcome for the recipient to acquire the information. Really, besides a basic understanding of the language of the text, there were no other levels between the reader and the information in a book.

In this light, is it really justifiable to say that we have developed a more sophisticated way of sharing information? It is true that it’s now much easier to share information with massive groups of people, but could the same not have been accomplished 200 years ago through public readings or lectures? Back before the world was such a saturated, hyper-connected place, there were many functioning methods of open sourcing to the public that we so sneer at today.

Going along this line, do the many added layers of technology between the viewer and the information make us more or less dependent on the technology? If the software of my computer were to break midway through my writing this post, I would be completely done for, and the ~valuable~ information within this document would be lost forever. Had I simply been writing on a piece of paper, my words would not be lost to the masses, and yet I would have to work much harder to get that information to the masses.

Who’s to say that our new system of sharing information is better or worse than that of 200 years ago? We are still somewhat classist in who gets to see what information—that of the highest calibre being reserved for the heads of academia—as much as we may have improved our breadth of reach to the public.

In this never-ending race to sophistication and speed of technology, we have lost accessibility and durability of our information. My old home videos from the late 1990’s are now completely obsolete, having been recorded on film and now residing on dusty VHS tapes somewhere in the basement, and yet at the time they baffled my grandparents with their colour and number of frames per second. Now, despite being just on the brink of the digital revolution, they have been left behind, requiring conversion to DVDs or a VLS file in order to be watched.

My basement, probably

We are engaged, trapped, strapped to a never-ending race to development, and are thus losing reliability and durability in our information storage. Even my old laptop is pretty much useless these days, and yet a book from centuries and centuries ago remains completely usable and, for the most part, intact. At the end of the day, we must step back from our computers and realize that as immortal as our digital information may now be, we are creating more fragility in its existence than ever before.

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