[Home]InformationLoss

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We think of information being lost in the far reaches of history: records are destroyed, word of mouth is garbled. In this day and age we worry more about InformationOverload.

But information still is lost. No-one knows where to find the plans for a house built in the 1960s. No-one knows what the "gr" in "alt gr" on the computer keyboard stands for (well at least the first few pages of Google don't nor Foldoc. WikiPedia is our best hope. Watch this space). [alternative graphic]. Total Google searching time? 5 seconds. Google:alt+gr+mean ;)

Ironically, as technology improves, information is lost faster. In the digital age information decays at a faster rate than the paper age, and information from the paper age decays at a faster rate than the stone age. Stone carvings take a long time to decompose or be destroyed by nature or by human intervention, certainly longer than the rate paper decomposes. Have you ever visited an old abandoned barn to hunt for newspapers? What condition are they in? In the digital age, a time of perfect reproduction, we were promised that information would never be lost again. On the contrary, much information is trapped on old digital media whose special readers have long since gone out of production. That information is truly lost. Even on a network environment, where data can be copied from an older medium to the newest, ensuring its survival, information is still lost. Web pages change rapidly, yet the progression of that page is lost in time. Here, that attribute is valued as the WikiNow and ForgiveAndForget, but to future net.archaelogists, it makes their task that much harder.

Yet surely, someone once knew. How do we manage to lose information in an era so obsessed with it?

Contrast the Clock of the LongNow project and the WebArchive? project who seek to combat this problem.

Data exists on the expected lifespan of CDs. It is (roughly, from vague memory, please correct) CD: 80 years, CD-R: 20 years, CD-RW: as little as 10 years. And this is the format that was initially marketed as durable wonderstuff.

What do you mean data exists on the expected lifespan of CDs? Even CDs are becoming obsolete. Do you think there will be a functioning CD player in 80 years? It's all vinyl, if you know what I mean. At least vinyl is mechanical.

Good point. http://www.photo.net/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=000rfo Old 78s can still be played on mechanical record players... who can play an 8-track?

Other fun ways to lose information include BrokenLinks and ContentSwizzling. Or you might neglect to write down CommunityLore.

There is much talk about the emperor of China who burned all books so that history would begin with him, the Serbian destruction of the national library of Bosnia, magnetic media from the 1980s that cannot be played anymore, or the "slow fires" that might destroy most of what was printed on pulp paper containing acid between 1850 and 1950. These are very visible forces of destruction. But information is also lost because people abandon it when they move on to something new. Students now use Google to find answers to their assignments, but the Internet has very little information on events before 1995. Going to the library to dig up the microfilmed newspapers from the 1960s is too laborious. The Middle Ages are called the "dark ages" because they seem dark when we know so little about them. This is largely explained by the fact that our libraries don't have any printed books or newspapers from that time, since the printing press was invented only in the 1450s by Johann Gutenberg. Traveling to the archives in Europe that have the medieval manuscripts is too much of a hassle. The Vikings in Scandinavia had their own runic writing system, but used it only for memorial inscriptions and short messages. Poetry, fiction, laws, and contracts were in oral tradition only. After the introduction of Christianity (around 1000 AD) with its richer use of written records, it took a few centuries before people started to write down some of the old stories, giving us books like NjalsSaga (13th century). Thes medieval manuscripts now contain almost all we know about the vikings, since we long stopped telling these stories to each other. Time and again, we have preferred to ignore information that was too hard to access, at our own loss. --LarsAronsson

In this so called digital age, doesn't anyone ever consider replicating and maintaining data?! Who cares if physical media decays! Just make copies many and early enough. Use sane file formats and if they are dying, keep the algorithms and/or convert when you still can. Digital data can be replicated 1:1. Data in sane and informed formats can be archived and version tracked in many ways.

Right, let's return to ManuscriptCulture!


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