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.