When writing and computers come together, you often come to a very strange place. On one hand, any rational person trained in how computers work and how to work with them knows, almost instinctively, that bits are far more ephemeral than words on paper. On the other hand it is equally clear that digital works can, in theory, express a permanence that is unsurpassed in recorded history. The difference depends on your definition of permanence.
It is obvious to nearly everyone that it is far easier to damage a disk drive, for example, in a way that completely prevents data recovery than it is to damage a book or manuscript to the same extent. Manuscripts exist in museums and libraries today which have survived fires, floods, physical damage of various types, being repeatedly dropped, shipped all over the world, and stored for hundreds of years – sometimes in horrible conditions. The important thing to remember is that these texts, after this type of treatment, are still readable. Destroying bits is a simple process. If I fail to pay my hosting bill for a few months, this server will be shut down, and the disks will be overwritten with data from another client. At that point, all but the most extensive recovery efforts would be completely futile.
If destroying digital data is so easy, and digital media is so fragile, where does the permanence come from? Permanence comes from two places: The low cost of making copies and the relative cost of keeping copies vs. throwing them away. Today, for preservation, the state of the art approach is both simple and highly imperfect – keep the data in use. Data that is used by people, and thus copied often, is almost completely immune to the effects of time. It is converted to new data formats as it’s available, and since there are many copies, it would require a disaster of worldwide proportions to destroy them all. The problems with this approach, however, are manifold. Conversions are rarely perfect, and the process depends, for its success, on the continual intervention of people who keep data alive and in living formats.
In many ways, this is nothing new. Oral histories depended on each generation to pass on the body of lore, knowledge and legend to the next generation using nothing more than the human voice. Copies were expensive, and took a long time to produce – and cound be destroyed all too easily. Much was lost over time, but much too was carried forward – sometimes for hundreds or thousands of years. All in all, I’m hopeful about this approach. We as members of the human race are, collectively, quite good at caring for information that’s important to us. I believe that we will learn and adapt, and that much less will be lost in the process than pessimistic archivists would expect.