Last weekend I was in the process of clearing out some of the junk that seems to accumulate around my life, and came across a box of CDs. It represented about 50% of my physical music library and a good 10 years or so of building a music collection, going back to some of the first CDs I ever bought in the early 1990s.
After the ritual process of ratching through the box going “ooh” and “aah” over the memories that my increasingly-dodgy taste in music seems to remind me of, I was all set to pass them on to Oxfam for someone else to add to their collection. There’s no real reason to keep hold of them, because they’ve all been (illegally) ripped to MP3 and now exist as spots of flux on the various hard disks that clutter my life. But actually letting them go was a suprisingly difficult decision to make - and it was even more difficult to decide whether or not I should get rid of a box of vinyl records that turned up shortly after.
While the information density of a CD or DVD is infinitely greater than that of a vinyl record - and the sound quality is greatly improved, notwithstanding the blatherings of the oxygen-free-copper community - from the point of view of future accessibility, the CD doesn’t have a lot going for it. For a start, their longevity is open to question - there were several in the box that were showing signs of decay or delamination. And from the point of view of accessibility, they’re not much better. Accessing the information stored on a CD takes a significant chunk of microelectronic engineering capability and precision mechanics. Accessing the data on a vinyl record takes a turntable, a rolled-up cone of paper and a needle. It might not have the sonic qualities that even the cheapest and nastiest CD player is capable of producing, but it’s a damned sight less hi-tech.
While I’ve got CD players to hand, it’s not much of a problem. But there’s going to come a point in the not-too-distant future where there aren’t any CD players to hand - or at least they’ll be a damn sight more difficult to find than they currently are. They’ll effectively be obsolete, they’ll wear and they’ll break down. And while repairing the mechanical components might be reasonably straightforward, repairing - or worse, having to reverse-engineer - the electronics required to recreate sound from a series of microscopic pits etched on a fragile aluminium substrate is going to be much, much more difficult.
Which in some respects is a metaphor for the information legacy that we’re going to be leaving for our grandchildren, assuming that they’re interested in the legacy that isn’t rising floodwaters and a buggered planetary climate. The concept of searching back through the archives is a much more difficult one when the archives consist not of yellowing paper, but rotten silver disks of proprietary encryption. And that assumes that the information has been saved in the first place - when communication was via some form of written physical manifestation, there was at least a reasonable chance that a proportion of it would survive for future archivists to refer back to. Once an email is deleted, that’s pretty much it - while there might be the odd backup hanging around, chances are that it will be in a closed, transient and fundementally inaccessible format.
Which starts to beg the question, are we destroying the future’s history without realising it? Without these physical forms, where are the historians of tomorrow going to get their source material? And what effect is that going to have on their understanding of us? Are we in fact inadvertently creating a new Dark Ages through our abandonment of a technology that’s thousands of years old - writing - in favour of alternatives with half-lives measured in a few years?