Will Bit Rot be Beautiful?

Curator's Note

This post was co-curated by Annie Peterson and Daniel Griffin

Archives have a long history of both preserving the use value of artifacts and amplifying the surplus value of the items themselves. The books and papers in archives often hold both values simultaneously. As the artifacts themselves decay they take on a different quality to users. However, the combined effects of new production tools and Moore’s law mean that the narratives and their carriers are increasingly code on media that are rapidly reaching a state of obsolescence.

As books, papers, and photographs, deteriorate in archives they acquire a patina of age that is perceived as desirable and beautiful, as evidenced by retail stores selling old books as decoration, or innumerable songs referencing faded photographs. Deterioration can be a beautiful thing in the physical world; but how does this fetishization of decay transfer to the digital world?

Obsolescence of media formats is akin to decay of physical materials; collectors may seek out laserdiscs not for the information but for the short-lived format, but what about the deterioration of the content itself, beyond the physical carrier? While content can be separated from its carrier in the analog world (through digitization or other reproduction), in the digital realm separation of content and carrier has become the norm. We access content on a phone, laptop, tablet, and make few distinctions between modes of access. The physical deterioration of a piece of paper is directly linked to loss of information, but the information on digital materials can deteriorate in more abstract ways that have not yet been widely fetishized in mass culture.

There aren’t yet songs about flawed digital photographs, but will there be? Will the need to apply digital forensics to author’s papers in an archive in order to rescue what we can off obsolete media be a romanticized act akin to handling the crumbling, brittle pages of old newspapers? As librarians and archivists work towards preserving our cultural heritage, there are questions about what is the essence of a material needed to collect and preserve. Do we preserve all the hardware needed to play a particular game, or do we provide tools to play it in a new environment? As we continue to discuss these questions within cultural institutions, and we figure out how to collect and preserve our digital cultural heritage, we should consider how perceptions of decay in mass culture will influence the preservation of digital materials.

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