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A gap in history?

This Magazine Staff

paper stack

I’ve often wondered what impact digital communication will have on our record of history, and apparently I’m not the only one. In the December issue of Popular Mechanics, Brad Reagan looks at the problems faced by archivists — particularly in government — who have to preserve electronic data for generations to come:

One irony of the Digital Age is that archiving has become a more complex process than it was in the past. You not only have to save the physical discs, tapes and drives that hold your data, but you also need to make sure those media are compatible with the hardware and software of the future. “Most people haven’t recognized that digital stuff is encoded in some format that requires software to render it in a form that humans can perceive,” Rothenberg says. “Software that knows how to render those bits becomes obsolete. And it runs on computers that become obsolete.”

A companion problem is what happens to your e-mail after you die, which I read about in the January/February issue of Foreign Policy. Could it be that we’re allowing a decades-long gap in human history to emerge? Since one of the recommended solutions to avoiding the problem is to print everything from your computer that’s important, perhaps we’ll be contributing to a crisis of another kind, in which the forests lose out to our need for accurate record-keeping.

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