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The Cost of the Eternal Recurrence of the Digital

DVD Disk

There’s been some talk recently about creating permanent archives of personal digital content. I wrote a post recently about how the digital artifacts of our day might look exactly the same in 2,000 or 10,000 years. The digital doesn’t age the way the analog does. In 1999, NASA found that it couldn’t read the data from the 1975 Viking space probe– the formats were obsolete.

Then I read an article in the NY Times about the preservation of films and the cost of preserving digitally produced films. Turns out it’s much more expensive to preserve the digital. DVDs and hard drives require constant maintenance and care to assure the quality of the data. More than $200,000 per year to preserve the digital, under $1,000 per year for the analog. Once the data is messed up, there’s no good way to fix it. We can use digital techniques to fix analog films, but you throw away a scratched DVD.

The human ear can tolerate and compensate for analog distortion, but digital distortion is just plain creepy. A DVD that skips and smears images across the screen completely ruins any unfolding narrative. We’ve reduced the cost of producing films and music through digital technology, but have we also created a era of fragile data that will be entirely lost to future historians?

The analog can be lost and forgotten, left in an attic in poor conditions for years, and still tell us a story when it’s discovered. The digital is simply unplayable. DVDs and CDs start to break down after 30 years. There are claims that with archival treatment they can last up to 100 years. But without archival methods (freezing for instance) CD-ROT can cause a CD or DVD to start breaking down after a few years. The digital has the potential to be eternal, but it may end up being the most ephemeral of all.

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