What Does Electronic Data Have in Common With the Burning of the Library at Alexandria?

Posted on November 28, 2016


The ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt, was charged with collecting the knowledge of the whole world, such as it was in those days.  When Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library during the siege of Alexandria in 48 BC, tens of thousands of volumes went up with it… one of the bigger “oops” moments in history, no doubt.  Historians may bicker about the true impact on the sum total of world’s knowledge, but at any rate, it symbolizes an enormous loss of information to posterity.

I sometimes wonder if our big shift to electronic media may not signal a similar catastrophic loss of data.  Oh, we can speak of a disastrous Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) or maybe a giant solar flare, viruses that wipe out huge swaths of humanity’s magnetically stored media, or the physical destruction of server farms; but there is another process afoot which is destroying data every day:  technological obsolescence.  I mean, who listens to 8-track tapes or watches Beta videos anymore?  Shoot, who can play them?  A handful of die-hards who never got rid of their beloved 1970s gadgets, perhaps, and when those gadgets break, there will be no one with the parts or the know-how to fix them.  Whatever is on those tapes is lost forever.

And so it goes with data punch cards, with 5 1/4 inch floppy disks, then the 3 1/2 inch disks.  I recall when computers were “big” if they had 20 MB of storage.  Needless to say, that’s not big, so a lot got stored on those floppy disks.  It was the wave of the future!  We could rid ourselves of entire walls of filing cabinets!  Well, we did that, and we got a whole lot of little plastic boxes to store our floppies.

Did I mention that around this time, we were using the now-defunct Multimate to produce a lot of official documents at work?  With Multimate on the way out, the Army went with Microsoft.  A few years went by, floppy disks became obsolete, and pretty soon we had neither the programs nor the machines to read our old data.  If no concerted effort was made to transfer everything over into new media – laboriously, painstakingly, one disk at a time, and fighting with compatibility issues – the data became totally inaccessible.  In the end, all of those disks became useless pieces of plastic in useless plastic boxes.

The Declaration of Independence, we think. Not that we can read it.

You know what’s ironic?  We still have typewritten documents from World War II, and letters from the Civil War. Mayan logograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs.  Cuneiform tablets and the Dead Sea scrolls.  True, all of these things could be destroyed and lost over time, but if preserved or rediscovered, they can be read.  If we preserve our data cards or CDs today, they will certainly not be legible even a hundred years from now, any more than the 5 1/4 inch disks of just 20 years ago are legible now.*  How crazy would it be to have a tour of the National Archives and see a flat piece of plastic enshrined in a glass case?  Plastic that contains information no human eye can decipher?

Today, there are more people than ever before, technology is accelerating faster than ever before, and there is more recorded information out there than ever before.  But every technological advance in data storage and retrieval is one more step in a steady march that leaves earlier forms of electronic information buried farther and farther in an increasingly obsolete past.  And unlike the Rosetta Stone, this is not a form of information that can be rediscovered and deciphered one day.

I’m no Luddite.  I’m reasonably tech savvy.  I keep up, more or less.  But there’s a lot to be said for the simple, direct ease of picking up a book or letter and reading it, or for putting pencil to paper and sketching or writing anywhere, anytime, under any conditions.  For the permanence of clay, stone, papyrus, pencil and India ink (did you know that real India ink does not fade… ever?).  Today, we are the beneficiaries of a vast store of information that has come down to us through millennia in various durable forms, but much of the new information we are producing is in very ephemeral forms, and on top of that, it is preserved in fragile media which rapidly become obsolete, unreadable without the extinct machines it was made for.  In many ways, it may as well be written on air.  I can only wonder what we are leaving to our own posterity.  A new Dark Age of Information?

* I must confess that a relative actually keeps two ancient 1990s-era computers just for the express purpose of being able to pull up the information on her many floppy disks.  Problem is, sooner or later they will break, and they are too obsolete to repair.