Data Death Knell: The End of History?

When was the last time that you tried to open an old photograph or essay you had saved on your computer? You may have the file saved on a thumb drive or emailed to yourself as an attachment. Have you check to see if you can even open it with today’s programs, though? Experts in the technology sector face a serious challenge in combating a phenomenon known as data or format rot. Much like it sounds, this happens when older, outdated file formats are no longer compatible with today’s programs. Depending on how old a file is, you could lose its contents to the 1s and 0s of time. With so much data saved over the course of so many decades, how do people combat this cycle of perpetual obsolescence?


Format Rot Affects All Media

Anyone who has used a computer in the last twenty years can tell you that formats come and go with increasing speed. At the dawn of the personal computing age, programs and files utilized floppy disks for file storage and dissemination. CD-ROMs served as the primary means of distributing programs and files throughout the 1990s and into the mid-2000s. Most recently, DVD-ROMs and Blu-ray discs have allowed for the preservation of films, files, and video games.

While still in use, one need only look at recent technological advancements to see that the era of physical storage is at an end. The rise of cloud-based systems has made DVDs and CDs all but obsolete. You can now download and store everything that you could want directly to your cloud. This includes all your files and photographs. Services such as Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft Azure, and DropBox make storing your data locally unnecessary.

No matter what format you use, no matter how advanced the technology you have at home, everything succumbs to data degradation at some point. Considering the rapid evolution of computing in the last decade, the march of technological progress shows no signs of slowing.

How Can You Prevent Rot?

Perhaps the simplest way to preserve your personal data is by merely opening files every once in awhile. Too many people keep documents saved in their original file formats for years, sometimes decades. People who were in college in the mid-90s might have written an essay on a PC running Windows 95. At some point in the future, they may want to open up their flash drive and revisit that file. If they waited until the recent release of Windows 10, they might very well be out of luck. Periodically opening and converting files into more recent formats can mean the difference between keeping that journal entry from seventh grade and losing it forever.


Various organizations now seek to find the best solutions to preserve the most important files and data humanity has to offer. Most notably, the Library of Congress has archived hundreds of thousands of documents in open formats such as TIFF (tagged image file format). The organization relies on more traditional methods, too. Archivists and experts explain that, though it is an old form, paper can still be a viable option for saving information. What lies ahead for staff at the Library of Congress is a near constant cycle of updating and reformatting documents to keep them current with today’s technology.

Nothing is quite as frustrating as obsolescence. Yet, it is a reality that everyone must face when thinking about the future of their files. Much of saved data has fallen prey to the plagues of disuse and inaccessibility. Taking a few precautionary measures can ensure the viability and preservation of your most cherished files. What steps are you taking to make sure you can keep access to your old files? Do you believe that paper can continue to be an option when it comes to preserving history into the future? Do you think that human beings can keep up with the archiving efforts necessary to save the bulk of the species’ important data? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

What Do You Think?

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