Why We Can’t Trust Digital to Remember

In The Map of Knowledge Violet Moller describes how the works of Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy were collected, translated, transcribed, and preserved over over the centuries. Most of the works from the ancient world have been lost. We have the Arab civilization to thank for preserving much of what we have from ancient Greece after the fall of Rome, and before the emergence of the modern western civilizations.

When humans first develop writing we wrote on stone, wood, clay, wax, and metal, but eventually invented the more convenient papyrus and paper for scrolls and books. We’re still finding ancient works of papyrus like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we’re still translating steles from antiquity that archaeologists unearth. In other words, our data can potentially last for thousands of years.

On the other hand, it’s surprising how quickly it can disappear. Since the dawn of the internet age how many digital content providers have gone bust leaving their customers without access to the works they bought? Remember Microsoft’s Zune player? Microsoft phased it out which is okay, but they also turned off the servers handling the digital rights, meaning owners of that content were locked out of their digital libraries. Over the years I’ve bought books, movies, television shows, songs, albums, etc. from various online sellers that have disappeared. Much of it was without DRM, but I didn’t back it up. Since then most of that content has been lost between all my computer upgrades.

Today I only buy digital content from Amazon because that company is so big I hope it will never go out of business. But it if did, I’d lose thousands of ebooks, audiobooks, movies, television shows, songs, and albums. So far it appears that Amazon (and their company Audible) have saved everything I bought, even when the work went out of print. But sometimes I think I owned something I can’t find in my Amazon library. So far I think it’s me because in the early years I bought so much from other companies that I now misremember what I bought from Amazon. But I never can be sure.

Many years ago I decided to go paperless and scanned my files to .pdf documents. My mother had saved all my report cards and I scanned those too, throwing away the originals away. I can no longer find those files. I thought they were on DropBox. When you have hundreds of thousands of digital files it’s hard to know when a few thousand disappear. I’ve been putting everything on Dropbox for years, and they’ve always seemed very reliable. Again, I can’t tell if I could have accidentally deleted those files, or something in their system ate them.

I recently discovered my Yahoo email has all disappeared. I used Yahoo to save backups of important emails, but I seldom went to the site to look at these old emails. I just discovered Yahoo deletes your content if you haven’t access your account for one year. Dang. Also, I used to have access to all my oldest emails at Outlook. But now Outlook only shows recent years. If you get to the bottom of a folder you can request Outlook to show more, but I’m not sure if they save everything anymore.

What’s needed is a program that catalogs all my files and tells me when some go missing. I don’t do backups because I assume I have my files locally and on Dropbox and that’s good enough. I used to save backups to external hard drives, but keeping up with such backups is a pain. I recently threw out six hard drives. They had been sitting in my closet for years, but when I checked them they no longer worked.

I also worry about all my financial records. All the companies I do business with begged to stop sending me paper copies so they could go digital. Now I wonder about the wisdom of that. I realize if I died I’m not sure if my wife would know where all my 401K savings are located. But if I only saved on paper and my house burned down, where would we be too?

I’ve read a few articles in the news lately saying if you read the fine print we don’t own our digital content. We can’t resale it or lend it, but what about accessing our purchased content forever? What if a publisher goes out of business? What if a publisher selling through Amazon goes out of business, is Amazon responsible for maintaining that digital content forever for its customers?

And what happens to my 1,400+ essays if WordPress shuts down? One of my blogs, Lady Dorothy Mills, is about a woman writer from the 1920s whose work is almost completely forgotten. I started a website about her decades ago, and I used to get 1-2 emails a year asking about her. It’s been years since I’ve had a query. Only a handful of her books come up for sale every year. Even printed books have no guarantee of surviving. If I really wanted to save my essays I should print them out. I don’t though. I hate saving paperwork.

We are becoming completely reliant on saving data digitally. After our civilization collapses, and they all do, how will future scholars like Violet Moller write about us? A book from this century could last a thousand years. But even if a hard drive could last a thousand years, would people in 3019 have a PC to run it?

Or will future civilizations carefully preserve our digital data someway? For years I tried to save the files I created on my Commodore 64 or Atari ST to my early PC programs like WordPress. Even as late as 2013 when I was still working I’d get requests to convert 1980s Apple II discs so the files could be read on Macs. It was seldom possible.

We talk about plastics surviving for thousands of years. I wonder if it’s possible to produce a new kind of paper that’s nearly indestructible, including fire and water proof? That way, anything we really wanted to save we’d print on the new DuroPrint format. Or can we design solid-state drives that can hold their bit positions forever?

I’m at an odd point in my life. I have a lifetime of books I’ve collected that run in the thousands. They included printed books, ebooks, and digital audiobooks. I’ve actually saved too many books. I figure I might live another 10-20 years and I want to thin out my collection to just what I need as I fade away. I also want to start deleting digital files and paper files of things I no longer need. What a huge task. I’ll probably delete 99 out of a 100 items, but for that one, I’ll want it to survive no matter what, and be discoverable by someone after I die.

I feel like I’m moving towards an Omega Point where I will die with just the exact books and documents I need. It’s the opposite of building a library or filing system. I’m not sure I need to leave any of my books or papers to anyone. I’ll give away my books before I die, and my wife will need only a few papers. But I do worry about a few rare objects I own, like the Lady Dorothy Mills books, or rare science fiction fanzines. I’ve been scanning the fanzines for the Internet Archive. I should probably scan the Mills books too.

The Map of Knowledge by Violet Moller




3 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Trust Digital to Remember”

  1. James,
    This is your best yet. Yes, I say that often enough. But this time?
    I’m the journal-guy, over 15,000 pages, just shy of 6 million words, spread among 52 titles of personal journals dating back to Wednesday 11/21/79. Stories told, dates, times, and facts recorded for no more noble of a reason than…. Fine, reasons run from habit to obsession to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, one day someone else will find these things, read them, and while perhaps enjoying much of the actual, documented history, they will conclude perhaps only: “That was one deeply disturbed little man.”
    And for me, the “digital age” hit in full force in ’09, when I began transferring my old records, 78’s, LP’s, and 45’s, to digital format. Ah, but I still kept those “old records”. But then, as if the gods answered an unspoken prayer–meaning they looked down and saw a desperately disturbed little man trying to keep his past alive–digital music became part of this new computer age. That’s now 2,028 songs, pieces of music in digital format.
    Add to that the introduction of Beta, then VHS, then digital, for movies and television shows. And ditto, the same obsession fell into place.
    And like you, much of that “stuff” is “tucked safely away” “out there” in cyber-space. But I have 04 external hard drives that mirror everything saved on my computer.
    And that doesn’t even begin to hint at all those tangible “keepsakes” I have packed away–the original hospital bill for when I was born, Saturday 08/02/52 at 0200, total bill, $179.30, yes, my report cards, the album soundtrack to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” my first girl-friend gave me for Christmas 1969. And books. So much stuff. So many stories and memories. So…much…history.
    But then, the dark side takes over and I truly wonder why in the hell do I even bother. I mean I look around and, for the most part, people have no true appreciation for history, not those big stories like wars but even less for the otherwise inconsequential and meaningless lives of common everyday folk. Sure, my wife and daughters might, just might, one day find this history informative and, I hope, entertaining in its comedic-tragedy of grand, epic Shakespearean scope but, at the end of it all, ain’t nobody gonna care that I ever took up space on this planet.
    So it is when I am visiting this dark side of the human condition, I believe that the Egyptians built the pyramids not to have a place to store all that stuff so they could take it with them into an afterlife but rather just to make damned sure no one else had access to it.
    At the end of it all, it has indeed been a life well-lived if not lived well.
    As always, stay safe and be well.

    1. Randy, I think we have a number of things in common. However, you do something I always wished I had done, and that is, keep a journal. Do you still handwrite your journals? That’s supposedly good for cognitive exercise.

      Also, are you into soundtracks? The first LP I bought with my own earned money was the soundtrack to Our Man Flint.

      I’ve always tried to save the past to prove my existence. But I keep going through Buddhist phases and throwing everything away. I both lament giving up stuff, and thankful. My goal now is to manage my pile of proof and make it smaller and better organized.

      1. Hey, James…
        No, I stopped writing by hand back in ’94. It started first with typing them (remember typewriters?) and then moving up to a Brother Word Processor (complete with 01mg memory cards!) I did return to writing by hand while driving a big-truck for a few years but in ’05, I switched to writing on a computer. And every day I struggle with that nagging intuition I should go back to writing by hand. There is a…a “something” unique to handwriting that no technology will ever, ever be able to replace or replicate.
        Then again, I am going to spend next week in the hospital—leg surgery—so that is at least one week I will indeed return to writing by hand.
        Damn. As much as I have broken down my music by every genre, type, and taste imaginable, I have never thought about which of my remaining albums are indeed soundtracks. I wish I felt some small sense of remorse but with music now on the internet, I have indeed collected a lot of those favorite scores without having to have bought the albums.
        And the prize for the first LP I ever bought was “The Monkees” first album, released in ’66. I had listened to that things dozens, hundreds of times (ain’t that what 14 year-olds are supposed to do?). And then my parents bought one of those “console stereos,” you know, turntable, radio, everything, in one agonizingly heavy unit. I was playing that album one day and the song “Gonna Buy Me a Dog” came on. And holy crap! There was Davy Jones cracking all those jokes in the background. That’s stereo? Yeah, hooked for life.
        “Earthquake,” the movie, with its new “surround sound” left me with that same sense of “Oh, this is just too cool!” And yeah, I have a copy of the DVD, packed away upstairs, unopened, for no reason other than that otherwise meaningless bit of historical value…to me.
        It’s your last paragraph that states it so perfectly and I am reminded of the pilot of the old television show, “Kung Fu”. Old Master Po gives Caine a lecture about “ambition”. On one hand, “ambition” is to be avoided to keep life simple. At the same time, however, Po admits to just one remaining ambition to fulfill in his life. It becomes, of course, a man’s dying wish.
        I wrote it this way in the Introduction to my “Keepsakes” journals:
        “I’m told the Egyptians built pyramids for things they wished to take into the next life. Personally, I think they did it to keep the living from fighting over stuff that belonged to the deceased. Unlike the Egyptians, however, I prefer to leave behind these remaining trinkets and artifacts. Each is a memory. Each has a history. Each tells a story. The distinction between ‘trinket’ and ‘artifact’ will be made by other people, of course, after I have died. Artifacts will continue on. Trinkets will be discarded. I’ve learned that the wisest of choices often comes through negligence, those carrying the most regret through expedience and presumed careful deliberation.” [end]
        I have an old kerosene lamp that was my grandmother’s. I have the flag off my dad’s ship he was on WWII, and the knife he was issued. I have nothing at all from my mom.
        So I keep telling myself it is the difference between those keepsakes, treasures, artifacts—all those tangible things we collect throughout our lives—and the legacies we leave behind for no more noble of a reason than we were here and took up space for a few minutes….
        These days, all reduces to nothing more profound than I hope I left the world just a wee-bit better than I found it. It’s the best I can do. It’s all I got.

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