'Digital dark age' may doom some data

Contrary to popular belief, electronic data has
proven to be much more ephemeral than books, journals or pieces of
plastic art. After all, when was the last time you opened a WordPerfect
file or tried to read an 8-inch floppy disk?

“Even over the course of 10 years, you can have a rapid enough
evolution in the ways people store digital information and the programs
they use to access it that file formats can fall out of date,”
McDonough said.

Magnetic tape, which stores most of the world’s computer backups,
can degrade within a decade. According to the National Archives Web
site by the mid-1970s, only two machines could read the data from the
1960 U.S. Census: One was in Japan, the other in the Smithsonian
Institution. Some of the data collected from NASA’s 1976 Viking landing
on Mars is unreadable and lost forever.

From a cultural perspective, McDonough said there’s a “huge amount”
of content that’s only being developed or is available in a
digital-only format. 

I play a small part of the digital preservation project mentioned in this piece. One of the digital artifacts the project is using as a case study is Adventure, which has been the subject of my recent scholarship, so I’ve been pitching in where I can.