Word rot, waybacking, and betting on paper

According to Internet experts, both high art and mundane cultural artifacts may be more like Snapchat conversations than cave paintings. Snapchat is a mobile app designed to present photos or videos that disappear after seconds; the oldest cave paintings have endured for tens of thousands of years.

Vint Cerf, often credited as the “father of the Internet” and now vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, has been warning for years that if we don’t do something, huge portions of our cultural, business, and political history could fall away as technology makes obsolete the applications and hardware we use to chronicle every sphere of our lives.

I’ve already lost big pieces of my personal history. You probably have too if you’re over the age of twenty. Many of the media on which I recorded my thoughts and words have become unreadable, including:

  • Apple Writer documents (for the Apple IIe, from the early 1980s)
  • IBM Displaywriter disks (dedicated word processing machine from the mid-1980s)
  • WinWord 3.0 documents (Microsoft Word for Windows 3, early 1990s)
  • CompuServe e-mail (from the late 1980s/early 1990s)
  • AltaVista e-mail (from the early 1990s)

And then there’s the web site I worked on in the 1990s that’s visible now only because of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

What could we do to prevent our Windows 10 documents from going the way of IBM Displaywriter docs? Cerf is talking about the concept of “digital vellum.” Actual vellum, calfskin parchment believed to have been in use since the sixth century B.C., turns out to have tremendous longevity. Digital vellum might have similar utility in combating what Cerf refers to as “bit rot.”

This gives me newfound respect for paper as a technology. While I’ve lost electronic copies of my early writings, I still have paper printouts. I also have letters my grandfather wrote during World War I—actual handwriting on actual sheets of paper. I don’t need a fancy retro machine to get a look at his thoughts. We can go back even further and see some of the original writings of William Shakespeare, which have lasted for centuries on paper.

It remains to be seen how our efforts to preserve and protect digital culture will fare. Perhaps DNA data storage will be the answer, as discussed in one of these On the Media stories. But given the complexities—political and social as well as technological—of these solutions, I’m not going to bet my future on them. Sure, I’ll release my next books electronically for the Kindle and other devices. I’ll also publish them the old-fashioned way, on paper, as a hedge against word rot.

Or maybe I should get me some calfskin parchment…

What treasures have you lost to obsolete technologies? Do you care if humanity’s works of art (and cat videos) evaporate into nothingness?

13 thoughts on “Word rot, waybacking, and betting on paper

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  1. I had a word processing typewriter in high school and I lost all the documents I saved on there. All my college work disappeared when my computer erased its own harddrive. But ever since 2003, I’ve backed everything up to my external hard drive and Google. The funny thing is all the poems I wrote in middle and high school are still handwritten in journals. The oldest least tech method survives. 😉


  2. So what we have, in effect, is a 21st Century equivalent to the Dark Ages. Our successors, in a thousand years, will be unable to assess out culture, or, more importantly, to learn from it. It’s a salutary thought: one we might dwell upon a little more seriously – otherwise, why are we here at all?


    1. Yes–that’s a very apt characterization. One of the interviews I heard on the subject brought up the Dark Ages. I’m happy that it seems there are a few tech leaders who ARE thinking about it.

      One fascinating effort to shore up our defenses is http://www.survivorlibrary.com. As I understand it, it’s an effort to gather and preserve enough knowledge from the pre-digital age to assure long-term survival after a natural or man-made disaster (of apocalyptic proportions). This seems to me like the flip side of preserving digital culture, but just as important.


  3. Some of my early on-computer journaling is protected by passwords I can’t remember. Luckily, most of it was boring. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. Good to think about — technology so easy to switch to, and yet, so out of our personal control. As an aside — Evan Spiegel, Snapchat wonderman was a classmate of our son’s, presented the Snapchat concept as a class project. The class was not impressed.

    Cheers —


  4. Very important things to think about, here.

    And it has worried me, how ephemeral digital things are, not to mention how they can’t be read without technology that I could not begin to reproduce. There is something wonderfully comforting about words written down on physical paper that can be read just by looking at them.

    Another reason why physical books – or something like them – never should go out of style.


  5. Yes, I care, and I’ve thought of this, but not quite as in-depth as you do here, Audrey. Though a drawer of mine hosts defunct floppys and those small, square hard disks, and I’m not at all sure what, if anything, to do with them, I have always ‘backed up’ to paper, having a distrust of anything I need something else to be able to read it with. The greatest issue for me is photos. We were always big on photos and photo albums around here, until the advent of digital cameras. Now everything is on disks and backup drives, and rarely gets viewed unless, in a moment of nostalgia one of those gets inserted into a drive. I know I can print them, but for some reason, that rarely happens.
    This post was disturbing, but in a good way. 🙂


    1. I’m glad the disturbance was positive!
      We are in the same boat with photos. Argh. But I did an interesting project for my son’s 18th birthday recently: I made him a photo book, about 20 pages altogether, pulling together an assortment of photos from the first 18 years of his life. It was definitely a “this is a present more for me” kind of gift, but I hope he’ll appreciate it when Dropbox and Google are out of business and our photos are nowhere to be found.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never thought of this. We tend to think of digital as better protected than paper, but your examples would suggest otherwise. I’m thinking of the very first novel I wrote, the one before my first published one. What if I decide to finally tidy it up and discover that its file type is obsolete? (I wrote it in 2002, and it’s on a flash drive too so it seems unlikely, but 15 years from now?…) Guess it’s good I still have a printed copy. Or do I? Must go check…


    1. Yeah, it makes paper a little more attractive. I have three files in an “Archive” folder from 1993 and I can’t open them! I’m hoping to figure out a conversion someday because one is called “New Novel” and I’m interested to see what I had in mind!


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