There’s a hungry digital tiger waiting for us all . . .

He’s closer than you think.

Is it possible that having so many choices in our electronic digitized age is little more than a ravenous tiger laying in wait for us and our treasured digital photos, films, files, life stories and other pertinent historical information? 

The digital age is remarkable in a myriad of ways, but if we become overconfident that what we want to keep will always be there for us, we’re setting ourselves up for a loss that could be huge. 

Last week I attended a program given by the Cedar Rapids Literary Club. Retired Cedar Rapids Gazette editor Mary Sharp presented a stunning—yet startling—presentation on what all these variations and choices in our electronic lifestyle could mean not too far down the pipeline–unless we search for committed solutions. 

With Ms. Sharp’s permission I am including the full print copy of her 20-minute presentation with today’s blog. A bibliography for this material, as well as her full bio follows. 

She said it was the loss of key historical information at her newspaper that started her thinking on the topic of just how safe are we really . . . 

‘That excitable and unreliable old lady’

Or, what happens to history in the Digital Era?

By Mary Sharp 

Just so we get any drama out of the way early:  “That excitable and unreliable old lady” in the title is that excitable and unreliable old thing we call history. 

French writer Guy de Maupassant came up with that memorable phrase in the 1800s.  He wrote a lot of short stories about wars. And the winners of wars get to write the history, as another writer, Alex Haley, told us.

But what I’d like to have us think about tonight is what happens when “that excitable and unreliable old lady” simply disappears, when she hikes up her skirts and skedaddles, when we go looking for her and find … nothing.

History is disappearing every day in this new Digital Age. Never before have so many people had so much access to so much information.  The flip side, though, is how easily digital information is lost. Erased. Altered. Gone with the wind. 

How many of you, for example, have ever tried to open an e-mail attachment, but it won’t open?  Have you ever gone looking for a website, only to find it no longer exists? Have you ever clicked a “link” to find it’s broken, to have it go nowhere? Have you ever gone through a computer upgrade at work, where most of your documents and e-mails and spreadsheets “made it” into the new system, but some didn’t? Have you ever had your computer “crash,” taking with it your e-mails, your documents, your contacts, your pictures, never to be seen again? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve glimpsed what might be our digital future—or our lack of a past. 

I was surprised to learn that a number of people have been worried—for at least the past 10 years—that this early Digital Era will become a blank spot in history.

Web consultant Terry Kuny puts it this way: “There are new barbarians at the gate. … We are moving into an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever. We are … living in the midst of Digital Dark Ages.” (Pole)

Cornell University librarian Oya Rieger adds:  “Information has never been so accessible, or so fragile.”  (M-M) 

I think we can all agree that access to information and instant communication is a modern-day wonder. You can sit at your desk and look at copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the original version of “Beowulf.” You can look at news and pictures from a century ago or from five minutes ago. You can check census and genealogy records. You can e-mail friends in Japan and hear back from them in five minutes. You can look up information on anything, anywhere, at any time. 

But these routine miracles come with a down side. Digital information is far more fragile and impermanent than in paper or on microfilm. It can be corrupted to the point it is unreadable. It can be altered into a lie. Its technology is quickly outdated; meaning the files, the pictures, we could see today can’t be viewed tomorrow.

You can liken it to a teeter-totter. You have a great big fat load of information on one side and a little-bitty baby of preservation on the other side. And the baby is not growing nearly as fast as the big fat load.

I have six examples of how we have already lost—or come close to losing—our digital history.

No. 1: In 1986, the British Broadcasting Corporation decided to undertake a wonderful project on the 900th anniversary of “Domesday,” the huge survey William the Conqueror took in 1086 of 13,000 towns in medieval England and Wales.  William did it so he could collect taxes, but the huge volume became a rich historical look at medieval times. The BBC wanted to create a record just like that, chronicling what life was like in Britain in 1986. More than a million English citizens contributed pictures, essays and videos about their lives.  Fifteen years later—only fifteen years later—modern computers couldn’t read the 1986 disks. William the Conqueror’s survey lasted 900 years, the BBC’s fifteen. (The disks were eventually accessed, but it was close.) (D-H, P-M) This is an example of history that almost disappeared.

No. 2: In the United States, an ambitious and popular web site—called My History is America’s History—was created in 1999 in honor of the millennium. Thousands of people submitted their family histories.  Three years later, in 2002, funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities ran out, and the web site disappeared. Only four of the stories survived. (D-H)  This is an example of history lost. 

No. 3: In Riverside, California, the history department at the University of California-Riverside created a popular community historical website. It had more than 1,700 links to other historical websites. In 2002, the history department deleted the website after deciding it could no longer maintain it. Years after its demise, web pages continue to link to the non-existent site. (D-H) This is an example of history that disappeared. 

No. 4: The Gazette staff turned in outstanding work when covering the devastating 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids. Some of the best work appeared on the newspaper’s online pages, which were packed with powerful photos, vital information, questions and answers. No one thought—in the chaos and darkness—to save electronic copies of those pages. This is an example of history lost.

No. 5: Google bought the Paper of Record, an archive of 490 Mexican newspapers. The archive had 20 million pages covering three centuries. It was free to anyone with a computer.  After Google bought the archive, though, users were redirected to Google, where search results were garbled and incomplete. If you wanted to use the old archive—the user-friendly one where you could page through the newspapers—you could buy a subscription for 10 people, for $2,500. (M-M) This is an example of history that kind of disappeared. It’s still there; it’s just not very accessible. Electronic information—digital history—is not saved if it cannot be accessed. 

No. 6: Engineers at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard were looking at old computer files about the USS Nemitz. The design drawings looked different.  It was nothing huge—a dotted line instead of dashes, minor dimension changes. But it was enough to worry the people responsible for maintaining the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.  Engineers found that the small changes had occurred when the old files were moved to a new computer system. (P-M)  This is an example of history that didn’t disappear but was altered.

The examples go on and on. 

Up to 10 percent of the audio CDs recorded in the 1980s and stored at the Library of Congress—in ideal conditions—now have serious “data errors,” meaning they can’t be played. (D-H) Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena found that about 20 percent of the magnetic tapes storing information from early space flights had deteriorated. The scientists had to search for, find and then build tape heads to read the data before it could be moved to newer technology. (AHA) History was saved, but at considerable cost in time and money. 

What happens in 50 years—even 10 years—to all the digitized documents, pictures, spreadsheets, drawings, books and websites that form our world today?   

And lest you think I’m Chicken Little crying that the sky is falling, consider this stunning fact:  As of 2003, about 10 years ago, 90 percent of all the information created in the world was in digital form. Ink-on-paper content represented less than 1 percent—only 0.01 percent. (D-H) 

Let me summarize the three biggest problems we face in preserving our Digital History. And then—in a much shorter discussion—I’ll share some possible solutions. 

The biggest and most confounding problem in preserving digital history lies in the TECHNOLOGY that creates it.

Newer versions of software cannot always “read” older versions. Or maybe it can read some of the information but not open some of the attachments.  Many of the web pages created in the early 1990s are no longer readable. (D-H) 

Computer software is updated every 18 months to two years. Computers themselves and their storage systems are being replaced on “breathtaking” cycles of two to five years. (P-M) 

This is technological obsolescence on steroids! 

Unlike books or journals on library shelves, websites and computer storage systems require regular attention and maintenance. It’s expensive, too.  Library print collections can weather a few tough budget years. But “a few lean years could cause large portions of the electronic record to disappear.” (M-M) 

Also, there are things we simply didn’t know—that magnetic tapes, for example, where we’ve been storing computer information forever, begin to deteriorate in 30 years. Now that we know that, we need to get precious information transferred into newer technology.  There are those “miles and miles” of magnetic tape from the early space missions. (AHA) There’s the oral history of the Navajos, collected on audio and videotape. (AHA) There are the interviews of soldiers and Marines who served in World War II.

These tapes can be converted to CDs and computer disks. It takes time, it takes money. But it first takes someone knowing the information is there and that it will be lost if not transferred.  That’s true today. It’s even truer tomorrow. 

Richard Salvucci, a history professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, said this:  “Every time I hear somebody is going to digitize something for posterity, I think to myself, ‘Good luck.’ Because if you can digitalize it, you can vaporize it.” (M-M) 

Worrying about saving old stuff is, of course, not as much fun or as profitable as developing a new “app” for a cell phone or a computer.  Newer and faster are rewarded. In most cases, the creators of our new technologies aren’t even thinking about, let alone planning for, long-term access to digital products.  Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in his influential book, “The Road Ahead,” does not once mention the word “preservation.” (AHA) (Quoting Terry Sanders’ film, “Into the Future.”)  

The second problem facing Digital History is the sheer VOLUME and COMPLEXITY of the electronic record. 

The National Archives estimates the Clinton administration produced around 40 million e-mails. The Bush administration produced 100 million.  You can see the trajectory. 

It would take years to copy those e-mails to magnetic tape, the previous means of storage. And the e-mails are just the tip of the iceberg. This mass does not include the tables and charts, the spreadsheets, the pictures, videos, ship drawings, and so on, that lurk below the waterline.  The National Archives in Washington, trying to get its arms around this problem, found that federal government documents are on more than 4,500computer file types. (P-M) How do you save all that? How do you search it? 

How do you update it? 

Ken Thibodeau, who heads the National Archives Electronic Records Archive, said that electronic records are being sent to the archives at 100 times the rate of paper records.  He adds: “We don’t know how to prevent the loss of most digital information that’s being created today.” (P-M) 

The third problem for Digital History concerns how easily an electronic record can be ALTERED, sometimes without even leaving your tracks.

Think about how online content already is blocked and changed in places like China and Burma and Syria. With so much of our own electronic content stored off-site—in “the cloud”—it would be fairly easy for some malcontent to, say, change the spelling of Madonna’s name or to slightly alter one of her pictures.  If your favorite politician says something stupid, it’s even possible to try and rewrite the online history of, say, Paul Revere’s ride.

In the news business these days, online editors are being asked to “unpublish” news stories, to take them off websites. Maybe it’s an “old” story about an arrest that shows up in a Google search and is interfering with someone getting a job. Maybe it’s an inaccurate letter to the editor. Sometimes an arrest is reported but not the dismissal of the charge. Sometimes an “ex” asks to have a home address removed, fearing violence.

Online editors sometimes grant those wishes, thereby “revising” history. One online site now takes down arrest records for minor offenses after six months. The information disappears —something that didn’t happen—couldn’t happen—with ink-on-paper newspapers. 

Lawyers also are having trouble with digital technology.  In legal documents, attorneys need to know who made a change, when, and what was changed. But when electronic documents are copied or stored on computer disks, this “audit trail” can be lost. You still have the final document, just not its history(P-M) 

People who’ve read George Orwell’s “1984” worry that Big Brother can simply rewrite history, removing all references to Oceania. Or perhaps Taiwan. 

But one expert—Clifford A. Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information—isn’t worried about Big Brother: “Nefarious action by a government or an individual is far less likely to change the historic record than is the low-key, haphazard deterioration of the record.” (M-M)

It’s the little things that chip away at the rock of history—people getting themselves removed from an online news archive, someone dying or changing jobs and their website disappearing, magnetic tapes lying forgotten in a basement, rotting.

Writer Melinda Burns sums it up this way: “The (digital) future is less ‘1984’ or ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and more (like) ‘99 bottles of beer on the wall.’” (M-M) 

The good news in all this: The Library of Congress, the National Archives, librarians, historians, computer developers are working on these problems. The bad news: No one is saying they have the answers.

Just this month, David Ferriero, the head of the National Archives, said access to the massive Electronic Records Archive is “clunky.” Also, he wants federal agencies to do a better job preserving the electronic records, given that 94 percent of all the agencies are failing to do that.

Right now, three approaches are being pursued to save our digital history. They are 1) technology preservation, 2) migration, and 3) emulation.  They sound complicated because they are. All three have problems. (Summary of Pole, D-D, M-M, P-M) 

To summarize:

  • Technology Preservation—Imagine a huge warehouse on the outskirts of town, filled to bursting with old computers and old computer programmers. This equals Technology Preservation—where computers and software made in 2010 are saved so that, in 2050, they can access the digital documents, pictures, files, and spreadsheets, created in 2010.  Extend this idea into the future, and you can imagine how much space it would take, the difficulty of finding information in different systems, the cost of maintaining that equipment in working order. A more local example: KCRG has miles of old videotape archived, and only one old tape reader left that can view it, if you can even find the tape. Technology Preservation, as a technique to save history, is a stopgap measure—OK until we can figure out something better. 
  • Migration – Migration simply means taking digital information and copying it from an old system into a new system—upgrading from Microsoft Word 2007 to Word 2010. The electronic information “migrates.”  This is the most common method businesses and government now use. It’s incredibly expensive. It’s unending because there’s always new technology.  Migration requires a commitment to update old electronic records. It’s equivalent to photocopying all the books in a physical library every five years. Historians don’t like migration that much because, over time, the “original” is lost or distorted. But it’s better than having nothing. 
  •  Emulation – Emulation allows a new computer to “emulate” or imitate an old computer or old software. That way, the new computer can run old programs and show old files—making a Microsoft Word 2007 document work on Windows 2050. Emulation is also called “backward compatibility.” It’s what happens with kids’ videogames—allowing them to play their old games on new systems. But for huge archives—think government—emulation is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. And it hasn’t been tested on a large scale. Historians think this approach would be better than the other two because it retains context. All the attachments should open. But will it work? 

Underlying these potential solutions is the crying need for development of global standards for digital information.  I think it’s safe to say we do not need 4,500 electronic file types. Can’t we get by with, say, 100? We also need universal policies on copyrights so libraries can copy electronic information to new systems. Some countries already do this. 

A few experts believe such universal, global standards are impossible—that it goes against human nature and the Wild West nature of the World Wide Web. Consultant Cory Doctorow, for one, argues that people are lazy and stupid and that they lie … meaning we’ll just have to muddle through and hope some pieces of our early Digital History survive.(D-H) Or hope Google comes up with a way to make sense of it all. 

More optimistic experts, though, note that the scientists mapping the human genome came up with a universal standard for all data.  It allowed scientists all over the world to contribute to that massive project, finishing it faster than anyone thought possible. 

Also, electronic music developed global recording standards.  The CD you buy in France will play back home in Iowa. And if you can get musicians to agree on one format, surely there’s hope for the rest of us. 

In conclusion, I’m not sure where to stand on the Digital Ice Age warning—if I fit into that camp of optimists or in the camp that holds “people are stupid.” 

But I do know a few things.

I know that knowledge cannot advance without access to credible, reliable information. I know that information is not preserved—history is not served—if information cannot be read, seen, accessed. You can have a garage full of eight-track tapes you might as well dump if you don’t have an eight-track tape player.

I also know that ink-on-paper does not guarantee the preservation of history. Julius Caesar burned the Ancient Library at Alexandria, destroying the greatest collection of human knowledge ever assembled. A flood wiped out historic Literary Club essays.  Great wars and storms, the great movements of people, the Holocaust—all have purged the paper record.

I also know it’s time for me to quit my romanticized pining for the handwritten manuscripts of Jefferson and Lincoln and Hemingway, and give up rhapsodizing about seeing the paragraphs they crossed out, the words they changed. 

No, my energies—our energies—can be better put toward pushing Congress, universities, Google, businesses, the world community, to pay more attention to the preservation of digital records. We need to insist on universal standards for the creation and storage of electronic content—our collective human history. 

Locally, we can ask questions: Is the history of Rockwell-Collins’ contribution to manned space flight recorded in an updated, searchable database? Are oral interviews with prominent African Americans, with war veterans, with flood victims, with native Meskwakis saved in a format that can be searched? Who will see that those CDs or disks are updated to new technologies? Can that century of microfilmed Gazettes be digitized and made searchable?

It’s up to us. Preservation of our digital history depends as much on our collective willpower and long-term support as it does on technology. Without the will, there will be no way. And that excitable old lady of history will become even more unreliable than she always has been.

Mary Sharp is a freelance writer/editor who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She retired in December 2010 after 16 years as city editor for The Gazette, Iowa’s second-largest newspaper. Her career includes 35 years with daily newspapers in Iowa and Illinois and five years in public relations for governmental agencies in Iowa and California. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Northwest Missouri State, she completed one year of graduate work in American Studies at the University of Wyoming. She can be reached at: marysharpiowa@gmail.com

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Citations in this paper are marked with abbreviations (below):

AHA—“Preserving the Past: Into the Future with Terry Sanders” by Pillarisetti Sudhir, April 1998 Perspectives, American Historical Association (www.historians.org). 

D-H—“Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” by Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005 (328 pages, $19.95) (http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/preserving). 

M-M—“Digital Disappearance: Will the Past Last in the Digital Age?” by Melinda Burns, Miller-McCune/Smart Journalism/Real Solutions, Feb. 25, 2010 (www.miller-mccune.com). 

N-G—“NARA Chief: Agencies Want Updated Records Management Processes” by Joseph Marks, April 4, 2012 (www.nextgov.com

P-M—“The Digital Ice Age” by Brad Reagan, Oct. 1, 2009, Popular Mechanics (www.popularmechanics.com). 

Pole—“Long-Term Preservation of Digital Assets—Some Specific Aspects” by Maria Styblinska, Institut of Informatics, University of Silesia, Sosnowiec, Poland, from proceedings of the International Multiconference on Computer Science and Information Technology, pgs. 317-324.  

SUPPLEMENTAL SOURCES:

“Archiving in the Digital Age: How Do We Preserve Our Present for the Future?” by Jeffrey Horrell, Dartmouth College dean of libraries and librarian of the college, and Martin Wybourne, Dartmouth College vice provost for research and professor of physics and astronomy (www.dartmouth.edu). 

“Don’t Know Much About History” by Brian Bolduc, The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2011. 

“The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia” by Robert S. Wolff, Spring 2012, Writing History in the Digital Age (http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu

“You Never Write Any More (Well, Hardly Anyone Does)” by Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press, October 2011.

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90 thoughts on “There’s a hungry digital tiger waiting for us all . . .

  1. I was also thinking about George Orwell’s 1984 already when I was reading the 6 examples of losing our digital history. When I connect this information with the camera-issue, it makes me feel like we are more and more approaching to his prediction… Thanks for posting

  2. What an interesting piece of writing it is! I have never thought that deep about Digital stuff around and its impact on the society.Thank you for sharing with us!

  3. Dear Rebecca,

    I would say, that the article finally says something, what is known by a lot of people. During this age, everything is go faster and faster and people doesnt care about the past, but from the past we could learn and gather the knowledge from ancestors. Many times have been used plans from Leonardo da Vinci or techniques for paiting.
    The most valuable things what humankind has are the informations. From archives we could learn a lot of interesting stuff.
    Unfortunatelly cost of information is quite hight and companies are trying to keep as much information as they can and protect them against others. I dont believe that we could get 1 common type, which could be used for archive of all important information for next generation.

    • You are so right. We won’t be able to have just one system that works for all.

      But it would be nice to move towards at least a few good basic, corresponding ones–yes?

  4. The idea of loosing digital information is very interesting and I hadn’t been thinking about it before I read your article, but I definately agree with you… Digital world isn’t a safe storage!

  5. Your article is very interesting and i enjoyed reading it. I have an experience with loosing data myself. My old computer burned from inside somehow and I lost most of the content I had in it. I only had a few backup CD´s. It was very unpleasant.

    • It makes for a lot of work, this needing to back up our treausres on this drive, or that CD, or that stick.

      Technology is great, but I maintain–it is not hassle free, no necessarily simpler.

  6. Thank you Rebecca for sharing this. I come from Russia where we observe a trend that people are not willing to go to libraries anymore and prefer to read electronic versions of books instead. At the moment a lot of writers see differences between electronic and hard copies of some classical works of Russian writers, such as Pushkin, Dostoyevski and others. I believe this is a problem for other countries too. What is your opinion about it?

    • Interesting observation.

      Feels sad, doesn’t it, that the translations take place in the move between electronic and hardcopy?

      What happens to accuracy of the original piece of art/writing then?

      Does this not support Mary Sharp’s call for action?

      • Dear Rebecca, it definitely does. I would even say that countries should organize an expertise to check whether original writings are identical to electronic versions of books. It is especially important, as electronic versions are copied with a much higher frequency. How is it in U.S? Do you have any supervisory body which looks after this issues?

      • The fact is–no, this isn’t necessarily a high-priority item at this point in time in the U.S. either.

        And it is one of the reasons I felt it so important to share Mary Sharp’s researched writing out here.

        If we pose the problem out to the world—perhaps some thinking, shining star will pick up on it–and turn in the direction of working a solution? Yes?

  7. Mary, as usual, is succinct at pointing out the multiple problems we face recording history and with accurate recording of events and issues in general. A huge concern is the ability to change source documents in the digital world. Also, Mary’s point about lost history when people leave a company hits home. I did a blog during my three years as Gazette editor, writing about issues, trends and changes we were dealing with at a time of sometimes dramatic disruption in the newspaper industry and at The Gazette. A part of the company’s history is in those blog posts. We shut the blog off when I left The Gazette because of an obvious reason — I no longer am the paper’s chief spokesperson. You still can find blog entries with a search engine if you use the right words or phrases in your search. I wonder, though, what happens to those writings when the digital platforms we all use, collectively, change some day. At least my Sunday newspaper columns, which dealt with the same issues, are preserved … in printed documents that are known to be unchanged markers in time, and available at libraries and Gazette archives. Thanks for posting this important piece, Rebecca.

    • Thanks for coming out to read Mary Sharp’s good work, Lyle. She and I both appreciate your time.

      As soon as she finished her presentation of this material that evening several weeks back, I knew it was something that needed to “go out” beyond our group that night.

      Between you and me, I want to be off the planet when I can no longer put my hands on a hardcopy of a book, magazine or newspaper, and I say this in the presence of the fact that I love my computer and all of the benefits of the Internet and digitized information at my beck and call (jeopardized though it be)–but I cherish my visceral relationship with the smell, sight and feel of the real thing called a paper copy.

      Miss your column and comments in the paper. Hoping your new spot is a good one for you.

      R’becca G.

  8. Besides the interesting form and catchy introduction, the topic is quite interesting as well. The digital era in which we live today can be beneficial, but also dangerous. Nevertheless, many people tend to see only the great parts of the digital era. The spread of information is amazing, we can access it very easily, but we do not think critically and carefully about the reliability of information. Everything can be changed, and we are becoming just figurines in the hands of big bosses who run the world. Moreover, we can loss the information without even realizing it. It happened alsso to me. My computer broke down and I lost all of the pictures I had there. Those pictures were my memories, and I lost them just in the second. Now I know that I have to store them into more system. It is same for everybody, prevention is the best way to deal with the possibility of loosing the history…
    I have enjoyed your article, thank you.
    Tatiana

  9. Thank you, Rebecca, for the great article. To be honest, I have never thought that technology could harm history. Everything I just learned is a big discovery for me. I always thought that computers were made quite good, even perfect, to handle with all the possible formats that exist and existed even if no longer used. I have never heard of the occurrences happened in BBC and the other companies and what I learned really surprised me. Such a big amount of data were lost because of the inventions that were supposed to make our lives easier and better. I’m just wondering, will people be able to get good detailed information about the present day in 100 years?

  10. I have very much enjoyed reading this blog. I have not thought about digital information from this point of view before. I have always thought that it is amazing that our access to information is basically unlimited. And much easier than before. Take doing research for schoolwork for instance. Before, when there was no internet, you would have to go to library and search through printed materials until you found what you were looking for. Today, you can sit in comfort of your home and begin your researching. As you have mentioned however the digital information is easily lost, alteredy or unacessible. Many times I have experienced that I could not access a particular link I have bookmarked and only then I have said to myself, only if I had saved and printed that. Losing valuable documents, for instance photos, documents or videos is also a shame when your laptop crashes down. This has happened to to me quite many times and I have learned that I need to back my data up because I can never know what will happen to them. I agree that it is necessary to be aware of this issue. And since I am sure there are many like me, who have not thought about this disadvantage of our digital era before, attention should be focused on it. There must be also a collective effort to find or at least start trying to find an universal solution to this. To find a way how can we make sure our history can be preserved for the future years.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Sharing information such as Mary Sharp’s article plants a seed of thought in those who read it.

      From there something good can grow; something that could benefit a great many.

      R’becca G.

  11. This is a very interesting article about one of the current topics. I do know how it feels to “lose” some time-period of your life, better said physical memories (pics, movies, contacts, etc..) because of the technology. I believe, but that is only my personal opinion, that all of the things mentioned in the article are happening because 95% of the total population doesn’t know how to use the technology in a way that it can benefit us. From the point of view I see it, we only become more dependent on the technology even for the basic daily survival. We wake up because the alarm clock goes off. For the breakfast we drink coffee made by some coffee machine. I forgot before we get out of the bed, we check our facebook to see what’s the today’s “status”. I hope I don’t have to continue. I’m not saying its bad, I’m happy for every improvement, but I think the general public was not ready for the technological improvement as it could been seen in the past decade or so. This improvement has created some huge incentives for us, but on the other hand nowadays it is almost a neccessity to own a smarthone, laptop, iPad..

    And if we depend so much on the techonology we can’t complain that some of the data either personal or historical can’t be accessed because we can’t control it.

    • But I think it is good to help people remain aware of too deeply embedded trust that technology is 100%, wouldn’t you agree?

      I believe that is a good writer’s job, and I’m grateful Mary Sharp brought this forward.

      Thanks for reading.

      R’becca G.

  12. Hi, I agree with this article. I have my personal experience with loosing of digital data but also with loosing of data from CD. Because of this fact I started to make a back ups on several external discs. I hope that this will help me to save my data but who knows what will be in 30-40 years. Maybe these data will be also erased by some time. We will see. But I hope that not.

    In the Article was mentioned that “Newer versions of software cannot always “read” older versions.” Because of this fact, all companies which are producing softwares and programs should make new softwares and programs which will be able to “read” all of the old versions and by this they can save a lot of useful old information.

    • Let’s hope software developers the world over come to the aid of the concerns Mary Sharp wrote about in her article.

      Making people more aware of this is where we must begin then.

      Thank you for reading.

      R’becca G.

  13. This is very interesting article. I have lost many documents in my old computer and IT specialist was not able to find where my documents disappeared. In that time I didn´t realize that such “disappearing” can delete parts of history. As I said, very interesting article which made me think about “digital Bermuda triangle”.

  14. Before reading the article, I was thinking why there is the picture of tiger related to digital world but the presentation of Mary Sharp clears out my curiosity. At the beginning I had a thought that she is thinking pessimistically about the digital world because the advancement of technology is what values now. I couldn’t guess that how naive i was supporting the digital development without knowing its good and bad features.
    I realized that I also had problems number of times searching the information I needed and the browser would simply show that this content has been deleted or some error has been occurred. However, as a student it didn’t affect me that much but I could imagine how bad luck it would be for the corporations, businesses and others facing problems in saving their data.
    Moreover, the invention of new systems and the complication to get used to are also troublesome. The system of upgrades, updates all these technological terms are confusing for non technical people like me. The insecurity of your information being hacked is also another huge problem.
    Just two days before, my one of the friend send an email saying that she was having some problems and she needs money immediately. I couldn’t guess in any way that her yahoo mail has been hacked unless she informed me later on. There is also possibility of changing everything in to something in a minute. This clears that everything we are saving in digital world are so critical. Thus, to save our identity and history for the upcoming generations some approaches or backup plan must be researched.

    • As a blogger and writer I love to use graphics to accompany the material I post out here.

      Glad the tiger thing cleared up quickly for you, and thanks for reading today.

      R’becca G.

  15. I found this article as very interesting. It is true, that in these days and the modern world everything goes through huge technological advantages and changes. A lot of things that were unthinkable before are now common. I think that technology is really important for our society even though, there are many shortcomings and bad sites of it, such as loss of data. But I also think that this age really makes the job easier and provides more free time. It is true that in today’s technologically developed world history is disappearing, people meet and communicate more online than in person and also the children do not play outside but sitting behind the computer. However, I am not sure whether we can do something against it. Time is going ahead all the time and my personal opinion is that it will be even worse…

    Lucia

    • Thank you, Lucia,

      My hope is that we learn how to manage and respond more efficiently to the pace of the technology advancements—weeding out what is worth our time, and what isn’t.

      Thanks for your time!

      R’becca G.

  16. That “excitable and unreliable old lady” is missing already. At least to many people. For example, take photographs. Where are those old and historical photographs when you had to spend time to zoom it perfectly, set up positions, light, surroundings and other things to have a beautiful photo. You had to be very careful when taking photos because you had very few chances. But now, in digital era when you can take hundreds of photos on one little card, save them to computer, erase photos from camera and take photos again. It is a little bit sad because you don’t have so much satisfaction and excitement from photos as you used to have in the past with old cameras. Moreover, in the past you had to develop pictures/photo film, wait for them 3 to 6 days and then the expected moment came to see all the photos. This brought some kind of atmosphere and let family or friends group together and remember the days from the photos. I can agree with Mary saying that ‘technology is quickly outdated.’

    Thank you for sharing. That’s really something to think about.

    J.

    • You took me back to the joy and excitement of “bringing the pictures” home from the corner drugstore after having to wait–and anticipate–seeing them for the first time. Thank you for that alone!!

      Good comment post. Thank you for taking your time to do that.

      R’becca G.

  17. I did not even think about this issue before I read this article but now that I have, I realize the potential threats. I thought that the technological advances of this age are bulletproof and they provide a genius way to store data; it never occurred to me that they are a “ticking bomb” so to speak. However, I would still prefer digitally stored data over ink on paper simply because of the organizational advantages and storage limitations. I would just wish that there would be an easy way to make the digital data more permanent.

    Even though I understand these concerns I don’t really believe the seriousness of the situation the article depicts because history cannot be lost that easily. There are still billions of papers printed daily in the countries all over the world and they are properly archived. When an event is important it will for sure find its way into the history; there is no point in recording every single mundane event in the long run. Nobody will care that a certain Adam Smith has stolen a car 100 years from now. But maybe that is only my opinion. Nevertheless, this article is still brilliant.

    • And thank you for sharing your opinion out here with us, Daniela.

      You have more faith in properly archived newspapers all over the world than I do, I’m afraid, but that’s okay.

      The whole push of this thing is for awareness of the need for more accessible and standarized methods of digital data storage and preservation.

      Thanks for your input.

      R’becca G.

  18. Quite interesting blog I must say. It is true that digitally stored information can be lost very easily, but printed information can be damaged or lost in some way as well. It happened to me couple of times that my data from a computer was lost and not retrievable.
    Whether it’s digital or on paper, everything gets old after a while and becomes damaged, paper as well unless not kept under good circumstances. Hopefully in the future they will come up with a system how to store all the information safe, before our history is “deleted”

    • There’s never been the perfect storage and preservation method, has there David? So true.

      We just believe it’s good to take a longer look at this digital thing, however. Technology is moving so fast none of us can catch our breath.

      I know sometimes I feel overwhelmed by it, but then it is up to me to manage it and my response to it.

      Thanks for reading and commenting back to us today.

      R’becca G.

  19. Well i has been some interesting reading with thoughts we should start thinking about.. It is really amazing how easily can something hlavne electronic form dissappear. I see the solution really in diminishing the file types to much lowering number and adjusting them to the technology movements not that often as they do nowadays. I would samy for example every 15-25 years, not 1-2 years..

    • It sure sounds like a good way to start.
      Here’s hoping someone out there will commit to standardization of file types—and far fewer, as a result.

      Thanks for reading.

      R’becca G.

  20. Hi,
    It is so true, even though the new technology makes our lives so much easier, it is causing that there will be maybe no history once. Or no one will know about one. Moreover I think that technology causes more problems than only loosing our history. For example people have more and more problems speaking to each other face to face, because they are just used to chatting through internet, or people have hard time writing with correct spelling because computers check your spelling for you, and many other problems. I think that technologies are great but there should be some limits.

    • I agree with you, but knowing what we do about humanity—this isn’t going to change.

      People get to do what they want with their electronic toys–and they need to be free to do what they want.

      I believe time does a good job at teaching us the error of some our trending ways. Let’s hope so, anyway.

      Thanks for commenting.

      R’becca G.

  21. This was an interesting reading. I agree with Rebecca´s and Marry´s comments about the modern technology, but I have to add that it people would really like to save the history they would do it for free and the first who should try to save it is the government of all countries because there are the people who represent their countries and mainly they should take care about it. Maybe the responsible IT people should invent a new technology that would save all the documents forever and would be available and useful for all kinds of upgrades and developments. But…nothing is for free now and people ask for things like this horrible amount of money even though they do it for their country, culture, maybe children…One never know how it would be in the future..Maybe our children would not be as educated as we are now just because the facts about the history just disappear. In today´s world it is hard to write everything into books and other type of print or to take pictures of all places we´ve been. People will never do it this way because they are lazy and it is more comfortable for them to take some pictures, videos and save them into their computer, or find some information on the Internet rather at home than they go to library and spend there a few hours to find it and read what they need. The last thing I want to add is that documents recorded by a video camera cannot be done by other way, so there is the need to use the modern technology. But despite it I agree with the opinions above and people should realize that they should find the solution how to do it, not excuse that they cannot or are not able to do it.

    Nikola P.

    • Being human is complicated, is it not? 😉

      We can’t get world governments to agree on human rights, country borders and currency at this point.

      It will take a strong lead by a strong country, or two, or three—to instigate the search for a solution to this problem.

      Our job for now is to help that along, as Mary said, by making people aware of the problems and concerns.

      Thank you for your thoughts out here.

      R’becca G.

  22. Very good article about how dangerous the digital age is a how we should be carefull to keep our history that people in the future will be able to learn about history from something. Good examples of how information can be easily lost. It is a good article that everybody should read and think about it in order to somehow help to save our history.

  23. Hello Rebecca,

    I agree with most of the informations you gave in the article but there each coin has two different sides. For example, in the example number 2: it is shame that the popular website was shut down but the question is – why was it shout down? The reason is because of the funding problems. If the fundings would continue, the website should be still running and many people can find many informations about the history. I don’t think it it the 21st century technology;s fault, in my opinion it is fault of the people. If they will be able to find funding for the website at some point the stories can be retrieved. One of the possible idea how to solve this situation is to make public collection to make the website keep running.

    It is not about the technology,it is about the people behind them.

    • Yes, indeed. People are always going to be the common denominator.

      We can be smart and act smart–or we can’t.

      We’d like to think we could manage technology better than we have . . .

      There’s never a shortage of room for improvement in the way the human race responds.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      R’becca G.

  24. Well this is the reality today. Everything is getting modernized and technology is getting newer and faster. Some people already starts to recognize how difficult it is nowadays to keep information about themselves secure. I can t and I also dont want to imagine how life will look in 100 years. The biggest problems today as mentionen is that many information are rewrited , the reality is changed into science fiction and and many important things are staying unpublished. This leads to the fact that in 100 years the people will not receive any factual information about the past. Also very sad is that many information from the past are getting lost because they are recorded on the tapes .Putting all together it is a sad present , because we are getting information which are very often not true, adn informational technology is more and more biased.

    Denisa Juhosova

    • You’ve got the picture right, I do believe.

      The good thing, however:–is that there are those of us who care enough to research it, write about it–and share it forward.

      We keep thought processes going with awareness.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts out here.

      R’becca G.

  25. I personally think that there is no unity in the IT world of today and since today is everything very biased people won’t know the reality of the history before them… Also other problem is that the information is screwed because old websites and web-stored articles are not here anymore and that’s a problem, our children won’t really know the real information. The article is great and I like the topic because it’s been here since ever but it’s kind of forgotten…

    • No, there doesn’t seem to be much unity, does there?

      Unfortunately, I believe it will take the enticement of money-to-be-made to cause someone to create some improved solutions for handling digital storage, and making it widely accessible and multiple-use.

      Thanks for reading.

      R’becca G.

  26. Very interesting article to be honest. However there are few things I would like to point out. I agree that it is really easy to lose data from your computer and never being able to recover it. However let’s imagine how many trees would have to be cut, how much time it would take, and what would be the overall cost if we wanted to print all that information on paper (and I am not eco-maniac, just throwing this idea out). Therefore so far, unless they invent some universal device/method which would be applicable for the whole universe, we simply have to tackle the problem. As we are aware of the fact that technology is changing so fast (new software updates every 18 months as you say, etc.), we simply have to keep this thing in mind and either make copies, or as far as you know that update is coming, you store your information elsewhere (external hard drive), to make sure your data will not be lost. I know that it may sound easier than the reality is, especially when we are talking about the case of libraries etc, however as far as my knowledge goes, so far there are not many options you can choose from. There are attempts nowadays to give you ability to store data on servers (cloud systems), yet still we have to keep in mind that once again if this server shuts down, information is lost.
    To conclude this comment, I definitely agree with your post, however so far there are not many options you can choose from therefore if you want to make sure that your data will not be lost, you better create several copies on different places to ensure that it will be preserved.

    • Very wise, Robert.

      We do just have to take it one step at a time.

      The thing is to encourage compatible solutions—meaning people in the industry must feel the commitment to even want to work toward such a thing.

      I wonder if this is where the ol’ “what’s in it for me” thing will have to rear its head….but I bet we’ll see a time when improvements start to become evident.

      Sounds like a good way for some real clever, ambitious people to come out with a great product—-and make some $$???

      R’becca G.

  27. Hello,
    well, as I am watching your discussion I have to say that I agree with you at all. As the article states there is an opportunity to copy all this old kind of data of devices that will no longer be used and transmit them into the new devices. However, are this data worth of doing that? Yes, no? Actually, I was facing the same problem when I saved few files which were important for me in the past on my external HDD and two years later I could not open or even copy those files to my new laptop. At the end, I want to recommend that we would not have to face problems with lost files if all new devices would be done to be compatible with older ones.

    • We are hopeful people will push for more compatible solutions. We have so many talented software developers in this world, I believe it can be done, but there has to be an impetus for doing it.

      That takes hard work, money, legislation–but first of all: agreement and awareness of the problem. Not necessarily an easy or cheap path lies ahead, but–one step at a time, correct?

      Thanks for reading us.

  28. Very interesting articel Rebecca, i wasnt aware of all the problems that this can cause and has been causing for years. It has happened to me before, i worked many hours to complete my work and just after i had my computer upgraded almost all of my work was lost, never to be found again! Iv had many other computer problems but i could go on for days about that. Although it is a very serious problem i believe that not nearly enough people care or even know about this problem. But if we all work together and get libraries the right to copy text onto digital “clouds” we can have a better, more reliable and historicaly accurate history.

    • So glad to have had the privilege to share Mary Sharp’s fine article forward with everyone out here.

      And we both appreciate you took the time to read and comment.

      R’becca G.

  29. Thank you, Rebecca, for an interesting article that made me think about things that I had never thought about in that way before.

    I have experienced a situation when my old computer broke down and all the data were deleted except for some which were impossible to read by the new one. All the photos, files, simply memories from the primary and secondary school disappeared.

    It is bad when I lose something that is important to me but what if the mankind loses its history?

    • The credit goes to writer Mary Sharp for bringing this presentation forward.

      Thanks for stopping in to read it. Minds are turning, and that’s where solutions begin to form.

      R’becca G.

  30. I found this article very interesting, which truly made me think deeply about this issue.
    Nowdays. we are too much into technology but now I can see that we should not relay too much on it.

    Thank you for sharing this article with us, I learned so much from it :).

  31. interesting article, I have never thought about this kind of problem that might happen in the future. I completely agree that that all stuff provided online is not safe efficiently. To me happened, that I found a very good source for my paper to school and when I was looking again on the following day, the article simply dissapeared. Firstly I was thinking that it was my fault that I could not find it. However, now I now that it happens so we should be more careful. We should think about the next generation and safe those material for them, as we had the chance to know what happened in the past. Although, it is very hard there should be done something that will ensure us that the history– an excitable lady does not dissapear ..

  32. As well as our buildings will not persist as long as Egyptian Pyramids also the modern data are not so safe as they were in the past. However, do we really need everything what we have produced? I think that if something is lost then it means that we do not need it, because what we really need we also take care of it. Moreover, in the future with another attitude can be the lost thing rediscovered and it can be better. Because lack of something pushes us forward,so I feel more optimistic about this issue. Otherwise it was very interesting reading.

    • A good question, for sure.

      None of these issues are ever single-sided, of course, but you will agree it is good to examine it thoroughly, yes?

      It all contributes to keeping us “pushing forward” as you so wisely wrote.

      Thank you for taking your time to read and offer thoughts.

      R’becca G.

  33. Very interesting and joyful piece of writing! Thank you for sharing!
    Even though the electronization of information has many advantages, it certainly causes big problems such as the loss of data. We live in an era were companies are competing in creation of user friendly softwares and applications; they try to get as much customers as possible and they forget about much more important things: the creation of softwares which will be able to read the documents created by current softwares 5 years later. And without the option to read the created data, what is the point of so much effort put into an application? I think, huge companies such as Google or Microsoft should realize the importance of the creation of preservation softwares and try to solve this problem.

    Simona

    • It does seem that it becomes all about busines, or the bottom line—get that new product out there NOW—with very little thought given to long-term effects. Nothing new, is it?

      Article like Mary Sharp’s help us to pull back and think about things a bit more deeply, instead of just what is in front of our noses.

      Thank you for taking time to read and comment. It is most appreciated.

      R’becca G.

  34. For me personally the most interesting point of this article is the fact that I have never thought about this topic before from this point of view. Of course I knew that if I want to keep something for my children or grand-children I have to print it out but I have never realized what amount of data can be lost because it is simply not being copied for whatever reason. Overall, I think this is a great work with a remarkable real-life examples.

    • David, this type of comment back is one of the most rewarding we bloggers/writers can have, and I (and Mary) both thank you for stating it here.

      It continues to be my hope that Mary Sharp’s astute presentation continues to gain momentum and shed continuing light on this issue.

      It’s when we share valid/well-researched information forward with others who want to take the time to read and contemplate it, and then perhaps look at how it might involve them on the individual basis, helps increase awareness, which helps enable change and maybe eventual improvements or a workable resolution. And that can turn out to be good for everyone. Right?

      Thank you for your time.

      R’becca G.

  35. Pingback: Comment on “There’s a hungry digital tiger waiting for us all . . .” | Aaron Frerichs – Nerding Out

    • Rebecca you pointed out on a very actual problem which many people don’t consider as threat. The amount of digitalized data lost is enormous. I will personally like to know, what is the ratio of lost data in written form and lost data in digitalized form. However I personally believe that solution of this issue will be by emulators which will be capable of recognizing most of the data. The technology should help people but on the other hand human kind shouldn’t rely on it.

      Tomas

      • Credit for this goes back to writer Mary Sharp for bringing the topic forward recently. I was simply lucky enough to be in the audience that night and I just knew it needed to be shared beyond the 4 walls of that meeting.

        I can’t imagine how one finds out the ratio of the lost data, however. If you find such a resource, both Mary and I would like access to it.

        Thank you for taking your time to read and comment.

        R’becca G.

  36. Interesting read. Being in technology, I see this problem too. I call it “code rot”. If a program we’ve written sits on the shelf unused, it slowly becomes incompatible with the inevitable upgrades to our systems.

    Open source software seems to be an exception to this. As Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system once said, “Only wimps use tape backup: real men just upload their important stuff on ftp, and let the rest of the world mirror it ;)”

    Unfortunately, solutions to the problem are hard to find. Popular things are saved, because they are useful, entertaining or valuable to people. Copyright and DRM (digital rights management) also get in the way of successful archiving as well. If someone is willing to save something digitally, or convert it into another format, many times it is actually illegal for them to do so.

    • Grateful that technology-guided people like yourself found this blog post, then, Aaron.

      That was our intent in sharing Mary Sharp’s essay forward. If enough people see something . . . well—you can see our hope–right?

      Thank you.

      R’becca G.

  37. Interesting thoughts, Mary.

    I’m thinking that this is no different from years and years ago when somebody probably said: “We should save this stuff.”

    I’m thinking of United Way’s centennial coming up. Where do I find historical data? Of course, I’m going to the people who have kept track of things and know where to find them.

    Digital going forward: Somebody has to start saving things in a format that is relevant. The website homepage example hit home, because sites change all the time. So, if it’s important to show a layout in a point of time you have to save it somehow.

    I think all of us digital folks can start by backing up their data, etc., and saving it. I know I do this for UnitedWayofEastCentralIowa.org and my personal blog (Christophsblog.com).

    Christoph

  38. Rebecca, I am certainly sharing this with all other writers I am in contact with, and in general on my Facebook. I think this is a problem that won’t be solved overnight, so it would behoove all of us to get proactive in protecting our own work: and trying to get this information out there as a growing concern so those “techno gurus” that exist can began to work on the solutions: Some have warned of great losses if we’re attacked in the anticipated “cyber wars” by our enemies, so it would seem we all need to take this seriously. A very timely and well thought out article and post. Thank you for your insights R’becca.

    • I always appreciate your insight and input, Joyce.

      Additionally, thanks for sharing this forward with others.

      My hope is that this is a little seed in some way, and that writer Mary Sharp gets to grow her paper/research/nudge to those who have the next level of ideas/insight—power??–to take this up a notch.

      I continue to be blown away by the research that lady put into preparing her paper. May it gather big time energy from here.

      Will write you a personal email shortly. Last night’s book event was just pure joy, was it not!!

  39. Pingback: Preserving Memories, One Byte or Scarf At A Time | Crgardenjoe's Blog

  40. This could certainly be a problem. So many of our writings could simply disappear. I’ve already experienced this with my genealogy research of about 5 years…it’s all on an old computer that can only be “read.” I can’t print, share or copy it. So, there are thousands of names, dates and information that would take me forever to somehow try to re-type. Most of the info will be forever “stuck” on that computer, and eventually will be inaccessible.

    • Mary turned over a lot of good “rocks” for us to contemplate, did you she not! Her live presentation was simply stellar and shut down the whole room that night. I knew I had to ask to share it forward, and she was so gracious and willing.

    • The entire room that evening felt that way, Sue. Mary did some deep digging to research this topic, and she made many fine points, in my opinion, that bear serious attention.

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