In a recent interview at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vint Cerf warned about an impending “digital dark age,” due to the effective ephemerality of machine-readable media formats (e.g., the Microsoft Word documents and Instagram accounts we use to document the work and joy of our day-to-day lives.) Cerf noted, “What can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.” This is not an unfounded concern—the history of technology is littered with discarded formats.
For example, the Flexowriter was an early version of a word processor that used punched paper tape to store textual information. A secretary, paralegal, insurance agent, or any other person charged with repetitive data entry could use a keyboard similar to a typewriter to record text onto paper tape in a systematic way. Here’s an interesting and persuasive account of how the Flexowriter made drafting wills more efficient in the 1960’s. The advent of magnetically encoded media helped render punched paper tape obsolete as a storage medium, but it, too, was not immune to obsolescence.
The Telegraphone was a magnetic medium invented by Valdemar Poulsen, all the way back in 1899, as a way to store sound on wire. This article from 1948 imagines it almost as an answering machine, something that can say, “I am not at home. Call me again at 3 o’clock.” As one of the first instances of magnetic storage, it was profoundly innovative, but if you happened upon a Telegraphone wire in your basement or attic today, you would likely not know what to do with it, any more than you’d know what to do with an answering machine.
More recently invented and later sunsetted, the LaserDisc was the laser-etched equivalent of the vinyl record. It was considered “one of the most exciting new electronic media” back in 1982. Images on LaserDisc could be extremely dense and replayed at different speeds; video could also be cued instantaneously, evoking a near-interactive experience. The discs were also capable of saving tens of thousands of pages of text. This didn’t save the format from obsolescence, however. Such density came at a high price, and ultimately the LaserDisc couldn’t compete with the economy of the VHS video cassette.
None of this is to say that it’s not worth trying to make our current media more durable, or at least more decipherable in the long-run. In fact, this is precisely the sort of digital preservation service that organizations like Portico provide to the academic community.