Bit rot – friend or foe?

by The Book Consultancy on April 12, 2014

There has been a lot of talk about the digital age and how it is making all of our lives easier, but there has been very little talk that I have experienced about how to preserve all that information we are filing through on a daily basis. Back in the “good ‘ole days” we had boxes of letters, notes, pictures and commemorative items that we either stored in the attic or framed depending on its significance. And, depending on how we cared for them, we had book lice, mould and silver fish to contend with… But what do we do nowadays? Can we pull the hard drives from our digital devices and put them in a frame? What about if there comes a day where even the walls of our homes become digital screens? Where do our frames go then? And, as the staff of the NPR news organisation said in a recent blog, “if we are starting to leave behind an increasingly digital inheritance, will it die as soon as the hard drive does?”

The NPR staff display some genuine concerns in their recent article, The New Age: Leaving Behind Everything, Or Nothing At All. Admittedly, after reading this I had a minor moment of panic. Now, as writers, I’m sure we’ve all had this moment at one point, “What if my computer crashes and even all my back-ups get corrupt? What if I lose everything?” It’s a scary thought for the general human being and even scarier for those of us who rely on our digital devices to save and take care of our words/creativeness. Even if you are one of those individuals who keeps every hard drive you have ever used, what if I told you another scary fact? Did you know that data can decay over time, much like its ancestor, paper? If you already knew about that, this may not come as such a surprise, but even though part of me figured that happened, I had never had proof. So, it scared me a little bit. The NPR staff explains, “Like paper, data bits decay (a phenomenon called ‘bit rot’)—software also dies out and hard drives get corrupted.” So, are we just to run around screaming because everything we have ever contributed in our lives is probably wasting away this very moment? Well, maybe a little, but I wouldn’t start the mass panic just yet. Despite the idea that every good thing must have an end, there are still good resources out there to help you save and keep track of your data.

Still, that wasn’t the most informational part of the article.

An archivist named Benjamin Moser is the authorized biographer of the late writer, Susan Sontag. He says, “In the computer system, everything is time-stamped and tracked in very precise ways. So, it really keeps a more complete and integrated picture of someone’s working life. We actually have a different view that would allow us to reconstruct a lot of someone’s creative life,” Moser says. “She had about 15 years of her life happening on the computer. So her stuff that she had — which were notes and manuscripts and letters and invitations and photographs — all start to migrate onto digital.”

Neat, huh? Or is it scary? Every computer we have ever used knows what we were searching, when we searched, how we searched, and how long we lingered on that page. Okay, a little scary, but when you look at it from either an archivist’s point of view or even from a creative point of view, we can see what motivates a particular creative mind; see what influenced how or what s/he wrote. Now that’s fascinating. An example given in the article mentioned Shakespeare. “For example, if we had William Shakespeare’s hard drive, we could see what he was reading online while writing Macbeth.” What insights we might get!

As writers and readers, we all appreciate the journey: how a character got to where s/he is at the end of the story and the trials that got him/her there. It’s fascinating and is the reason many of us read and write. In a way, we are archiving the lives of creative people as if we were right there with them, writing a story about what happened in his/her life. It’s an interesting paradox, able to write the story of an author as s/he is writing the story of a character. It makes you get back to the roots; the bigger picture. We’re all in this life to create stories, especially to create our own.

Don’t be afraid of this new, digital age and, yes, back everything up. Just don’t be afraid that you’re not leaving anything behind. Even if you don’t get a huge book deal or become a celebrity, someone out there will be able to go back and look at you life’s story. And, hey, who knows? The file you save today may make all the difference to someone tomorrow…

Kelly Mundt

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