Recent discussions about the decline in handwriting have highlighted a disturbing thought, namely, can digital equipment and media provide a reliable means of long-term storage for our written records, photographs and music? If my experiences have been anything to go by then the answer is no.
My first computers were Amstrad PCWs which stored everything on removable floppy discs. Just to be awkward, these were not the same discs as used in “IBM-compatible PCs” so that when I upgraded eventually to a Dell PC it was necessary to use a special cable and software to transfer all my text discs from PCW to Dell, and then import them into Microsoft Word. Those were the days when “state of the art” so far as the general public were concerned amounted to 100mb hard drives, Windows 3.1 and the WWW was for a small minority of “anoraks”.
Now, apparently, PC floppies are obsolete though I have still a couple of dozen unused. Anticipating this, I put all my back-up storage on to CDs. Then the trouble began. Despite careful storage some CDs later proved unreadable (even in the machine on which they had been recorded). Later CD drives failed to read CDs made on earlier drives and so on. Add to this major computer/hard drive breakdowns (three in 20 years) – precisely the reasons for making back-up discs in the first place – and, one way or another I lost hundreds of digital photos a few years ago and still more files in 2006.
Fortunately, most of the really important photos and text files pre-dated the advent of home computers and are safe still in their original paper form. Now, I use a one-year-old laptop and have everything important backed up on CDs and on a less than one-year-old USB hard drive. I am reasonably confident that I will not suffer major losses of computer content during the next few years but that is not the point.
The point is that I have family photos and other documents (for example) dating back into the 19th Century mostly in their original form. They, at least, could well last for another couple of centuries or more. However, in view of the ever more widespread use of digital equipment and storage media, how can today’s text documents, photos (and music files) be stored securely for the benefit of the next four or five (or more) generations? Or are we expected to become a society which is happy to discard anything that is more than a year or two old, including all traces of our own day to day history?