A colleague tells me about driving to Atlanta recently to fetch some digitized images. His client hadn’t been able to file share them, because the images, presumably unseen since the 90s, were stored on 5.25″ floppy disks that not a single machine on the premises was capable of reading.
Eventually, a data transfer service had to be hired to burn the images to CD, because the only 5.25″ drives that anyone involved with the project could find were on Ebay. Getting such a drive to communicate with the team’s equipment would have required special cables and adapters that none of them had and none of them wanted to learn how to use.
My colleague and I talked again (How many times have we done this?) about the ever-shortening useful lifespan of new technologies, about how difficult it will be for historians 50 or 100 years from now to research our era’s personal and business archives. This is of particular interest to him, because he’s an amateur historian.
Nor will antiquated hardware be the only hurdle. Even when data can be recovered intact, there remains the possibility that it will be unintelligible. Don’t believe me? Try opening a 25-year-old WinWord document with Office 365 and you’ll see what I mean. Or actually, you won’t see. Not without a struggle, anyway.
The cloud does offer some relief, and God bless it for that, but only in terms of hardware. Files stored on the cloud will obsolesce there as surely as they would anywhere else, and whether future grandchildren rummaging through grandma’s virtual attic will be able to make heads or tails of what they find is an open question.
No more love letters tied up with string, you see. Nothing as easy as that. No more postcards in scrapbooks or photos in albums. No more smell of old paper, or handwriting, or smudges, or dogeared pages. No more stains or dust.
Readable, unreadable, corrupted and clean. Protected and unprotected. Stored here, stored there. On this and that.
I know it’s cliché for people of a certain age to mourn the passing of the old ways, but in this case, I really kind of definitely do.