Unreadable file formats and bit rot: Novel problems in the digital age… or not?

If you’ve been using computers for long enough, you’ve probably faced unreadable file formats or changes in distribution media: How do I open this old WordPerfect document? How am I going to read those files stored on a ZIP disk? Photographic prints and print editions of books have much less demanding requirements for seeing their contents. You found a box of slides from the 1960s? No problem; just hold them up to a light. In fact, if you have a good slide scanner or projector, despite their age, the pictures might still be of higher quality than images produced by your compact digital camera! The problems of unreadable file formats and changes in physical media are unique to the digital age. Or so some might have you believe (especially those pushing cloud services).

But is this software/hardware thing really a new issue? Certainly, when duplicating text and images was the domain of scribes and forgers, the continued existence of documents written on paper or papyrus were threatened by the danger of fires, floods, and surprise alligators; unimportant documents would not warrant being copied. Even works by notable writers were not guaranteed to survive. The great tragedian thespian Euripides wrote ninety plays; perhaps the greatest tragedy is that fewer than twenty of his works have survived. Meanwhile, the ease of making digital copies for back-up purposes has saved my bacon more than once1.

However, the longevity of a physical medium has never guaranteed a document’s continued usability. The Rosetta Stone has physically survived for two millennia but the Egyptian hieroglyphics were completely alien (and that’s without Stargate references) until just under two centuries ago. If you will permit me to be a bit Searle-y for a moment, no human brain had the software required to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was only after much effort that we were able to reverse-engineer the language.

“Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum…” – Beowulf

Things don’t look much better if we stay within the same language family. I would hazard that Beowulf, written in Old English, is completely incomprehensible to your average contemporary English speaker. The words sound so foreign that Beowulf would not seem out of place on the Rosetta Stone. But surely if we restricted ourselves to something more contemporary where we could read all the words…

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears:
I come to bury Cæsar, not to praise him:
The euill that men do, liues after them,
The good is oft enterred with their bones,
So let it be with Cæsar…” — Julius Caesar (III.ii.1610-1614), William Shakespeare2

Many of you probably have memories of studying Shakespeare in school; Romeo and Juliet, perhaps, with opaque phrases such as, “No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir” and “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” With the help of enough margin notes from Shakespearean scholars to make Fermat seem lazy, we can still understand that Juliet is not playing hide-and-seek with Romeo but is lamenting the fact that he was born a Montague, the clan with which her family has a feud. Thanks to continual translations, editing, and study, Shakespeare remains readable to this day. This is, in essence, what we do to prevent data loss due to digital obsolescence: open, convert, and transfer old files to the media and file formats of the present.

But wait! Four hundred years is a rather long time. No one alive today has even met someone that was alive at the time of Shakespeare. More than thirty years ago, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Palm Sunday that Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s acclaimed Voyage au bout de la unit is inaccessible to the modern French due to its intentional use of lingo from a very particular part of French society when it was written. Certainly, there are people alive today from when that book was published (1932), let alone when Vonnegut was writing. Vonnegut commented how translations made at the time Céline’s work was published are still accessible since translations did not use the same specialized vernacular. Just as converting documents between formats does not entail that the document is unchanged, a high degree of fidelity in a translation is never guaranteed; Vonnegut even goes so far as to suggest that translators of literature be listed as co-authors and makes a similar point in A Man Without a Country in reference to translating the title of Jailbird.

Our own use of language has likely evolved, whether it be through new expressions or changing meanings of existing words. Computer has ceased being a profession. The Flintstone household, despite enticing viewers with the promise of a “gay old time”, was nothing at all like the household of Will and Grace. And hotspots are not necessarily to be avoided. Even updating language to fit the times, though, is no panacea. Some of Jesus’ parables in the Christian Bible contain meaning that requires first century context to appreciate and jokes may lose their zing.

Changes in the availability of software — embodied in hardware or wetware — happens all the time. Proactive means can be used to minimize the impact; as the Arabs did with Greek classics, so, too, do we in this digital age. Bit rot is nothing new. It’s just a different manifestation of a problem literally as old as history itself.

  1. Mmm… bacon… []
  2. Or possibly Sir Francis Bacon… see [1]; I can include bacon, too, 🙂 VP []

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