Digital doomsday

Last week I received an e-mail from a reader who asked if I could suggest how he could retrieve some files from a 5,25-inch floppy disk.

I remember floppies very well but it has been an awfully long time since I last saw a floppy drive and even longer since I had one in my PC. I phoned my usual computer troubleshooters and they couldn’t help either. Anyone who still has an operating floppy drive and can help is asked to get in touch by leaving a comment, with your e-mail address please, at the end of this article.

The experience got me thinking about recorded information and how rapidly storage formats change. It isn’t all that long ago that lots of people had record players but now most would battle if they wanted to play a vinyl record.

You can still get record players if you’re really committed or, if you have plenty of money, you can get people to transfer your records to compact disc for you. The snag is that this situation is not going to last forever and there’ll come a time when there will still be records around, but no way to play them.

The list of formats which are no longer generally available includes records, video discs, eight-track tapes and Betamax. You could probably add other formats to the list and in the pretty near future, these obsolete formats will be joined by audio tape, VHS and, eventually, by compact discs.

That means that all the information contained in these formats will be lost to us, and those who come along after us, unless it is transferred to new media formats while the means to read the old ones is still around. The same problems faces information stored on computer, as we have already seen with the case of obsolete floppy discs.

In another example, Apple stopped including stiffie disk drives in its new computers some time ago. There was some discussion at the time but files were getting so big that most wouldn’t fit on a stiffie disk anyway.

It made sense to dump stiffies but an unintended consequence is that the information stored by Apple users on stiffie disks will soon be inaccessible. There are already some PCs without stiffie drives and the trend is only going to continue.

There is the possibility that information will become inaccessible whenever storage formats change but there is no guaranteeing that it will be readable, even if we remember to re-record it using new storage mediums. Imagine the frustrations of people in future trying to open a bunch of Microsoft Word files without access to the program, or even to a computer that could run it.

It is probably pretty close to blasphemy to suggest that Windows (and Word) might not always be with us but, really, it might not. And then where would we be?

I went out onto the Internet and soon found that the impermanent nature of recorded information is causing quite a bit of worry around the world. One article, in the Guardian in 2002, provides an example of how quickly computer-based information can become inaccessible.

In 1987, the BBC decided to create a computer-based multimedia version of the Domesday Book but, just 15 years later, the information was unreadable because there were none of the special computers left. This is in stark contrast to the real Domesday book, which was compiled in 1088, and is still available for inspection in the Public Record Office in Kew, London.

As one expert quoted in the article said, “We’re lucky Shakespeare didn’t write on an old PC”.

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1 thought on “Digital doomsday

  1. Thanks to one and all who replied to the article with offers of help. I deleted the replies because they had e-mail addresses that could be harvested by spambots in them.

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