David Pogue: What is data rot?
Dag Spicer: Data rot refers mainly to problems with the medium on which information is stored. Over time, things like temperature, humidity, exposure to light, being stored not-very-good locations like moldy basements, make this information very difficult to read.
The second aspect of data rot is actually finding the machines to read them. And that is a real problem. If you think of the 8-track tape player, for example, basically the only way you can find 8-track cartridges is in a flea market or a garage sale.
The problem, strangely enough, is not so bad on the older stuff, but quite bad on the more recent stuff. So we can read tapes here at the museum that are 50 years old.
... The real problem lies in newer formats. With a CD or a DVD, if there's an error, often it's non-recoverable, and you've just lost all your information.
On the same theme, see the recent article in Lost Magazine on "Are We Losing Our Memory? or The Museum of Obsolete Technology."
Spicer offers suggestions for preserving digital data, which come down to constant updating, what Kevin Kelly calls "movage" of data from one medium and platform to another. But then he adds:
Consider paper as an archival medium. Some paper we have has lasted thousands of years.
DP: Hasn't anyone tried to create a truly permanent storage medium?
DS: One of the technologies for really long-term preservation was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It was, I think, a titanium disk about the size of a long-playing record, and it was supposed to last 10,000 years. But then they realized that there were some assumptions that weren't right, and that it would not last 1,000 years, it might only last 20.
Otherwise, as far as I know, no one is working on this problem. It's really in no one's interest, no manufacturer's interest; they want to keep selling you more hard drives every two to five years, or more blank CDs, and what have you.
And that's why it's almost like your retirement, it's something you have to take responsibility for yourself. No one is going to do it for you.
In fact, the Long Now Foundation is working on the problem, but their Rosetta Disk costs $25,000--not yet a solution for mass preservation.