Digital Heirlooms in the Attic

Berenice Abbott and Pierre Mac-Orlan. Atget, Photographe de Paris (Paris: H. Jonquières, 1930), pl. 4. Public Domain. Getty Museum.

The story about the library book returned 100 years overdue is one those lighthearted newspaper pieces that still gets written up. Sometimes these overdue books come with an explanation that makes for a human interest story, but just as often they are returned anonymously, left on a doorstep or mailed back without return address or explanation.

When we do find out the reason for the return, it’s usually because because someone is clearing out belongings, and has sentimental attachments that lead them to send the old book back. The library is still there after all these years, and returning the book connects a dusty past to a living present. If the book was in the possession of a dead person, the return might be a kind of act on their behalf.

An article about the old, returned library book gives the public an occasion to reflect on a private possession. Still, for the most part, millions of objects, however interesting and worthy of attention in the distracted present, will never get that much recognition before they are sold as junk, stored until they rot, or tossed in the trash. But as long as those artifacts are on still on paper, they have a claim on existence, awaiting notice by some later passerby. It’s possible to return century-old books to the library because they are durable and resilient in storage. Paper, even if stored in degrading conditions, lasts a long time.

This is not the case for digital objects, whether text, photos or other media. The old computer or phone stored in the attic may technically hold a lot of memories, but formidable barriers exist to its rediscovery.

First, an attic full of digital stuff comes with major concerns about material breakdown. I am not aware of any digital storage medium that does well outside of prolonged room-temperature conditions. And failures are often invisible. The objects in a digital archive, like CDs, may look fine to the eye, but one can only be sure by using them. You needn’t burn the attic down to lose a lifetime of memories stored on a hard drive. Just let it sit, and it will almost certainly fail within a few decades at most.

Second, there are the concerns about the technology itself. Technology changes fast today, and while certain standards may look the same on the surface (e.g., the plain text file), more subtle issues like archaic encoding formats might still render today’s data practically inaccessible to future computers. If you want to read a file on my computer a few decades from now, you may need to supply not just an ancient copy of software to run it–you’ll need to provide the hardware, too.

The consequence is that very little of the ordinary digital present in the attic is likely to survive.

And that’s OK. The world is overwhelmed as it is by the information it creates. And to be fair, very little of the richness of the past has survived, too. But some of today’s digital world, some nth fractional sub-unit of all the bits being produced today, likely will make it into the long future. And like in past eras, the stuff that survives won’t necessarily be what was deliberately preserved.

Consider this phenomenon in archaeology: there is little trace of most dwellings in ancient England or Ireland. One guess about why is that these peoples built their houses with turf, basically dirt from a bog, that was quickly reabsorbed into the earth once the houses were abandoned. These people weren’t thinking about documenting their lifestyle for posterity–turf was what they had lying around. Compare this archeological record to that of the cliff dwellers of the U.S. desert southwest, who also built with what they had available: clay and mud (adobe brick), which has in many cases lasted thousands of years. In this sense the cliff-dwellers got lucky when it comes to the archaeological discoverability–and the historical record–of their civilization. They lived in a place with ready-to-hand materials that were made last.

I suspect that what survives of the digital world in the future will be just as accidental as the objects that archaeologists have already discovered about past eras. Let’s imagine that the next few decades see a burst of innovation in the electronic drive storage industry. Many more storage media exist than we have today, some made with exotic and rare elements, others with old standby technology, and all with various trade-offs. Or maybe a few varieties of solid-state drive take advantage of the atomic properties of some ultra-durable element like iron or lead. In any case, anyone who happens to have used a certain type of drive will have created data that lasts for 100,000 years under the right conditions.

Or, imagine the archival equivalent of the mosquito in amber from the Cretaceous period, some natural disaster, an asteroid creating a plume in the desert that buries a cloud data center in an old-school cloud of dust and rock. One data center might be a tiny fraction of the information stored on today’s cloud, but still a huge chunk of material for the archaeologists of the future to pore through with their paleo-digital forensic tools.

It’s anyone’s guess what will be preserved–and what, if anything, it will represent to later eons of intelligent life. Ever-more attention is being given to the fragile materiality of digital life, but it’s still just as likely that what does get preserved will endure by accident rather than deliberate selection. Monks and scribes have saved much of what we have from the last few thousand years, but who has inherited that calling today? Perhaps a set of text messages that someone sends this afternoon will survive a hundred million years after a play by Shakespeare. We can’t rule it out. A lot can happen in a future that–whether to not people are around to see it–will last a long time.


Doc Searls Blog, “Will our digital lives leave a fossil record?” 2020 (Accessed 2021/08/09).