Permanence and Mutability

It Turns Out That There Are Two Sustainability Problems With Digital Media.

By Thomas J. Roach

When we were first introduced to digital technology, we were led to believe that it was more permanent than printing. Digital documents and photos would never fade and would always be available on our computers.


It turns out that there are two sustainability problems with digital media. One, computers can have mechanical problems or get viruses and crash, and two, software technology is constantly changing, so what we write today, we may not be able to read tomorrow.

The crash problem can be addressed with backups to external hard drives or to the Cloud. External hard drives make sense unless they crash, too. The Cloud seems safer as long as you remember your password, you pay your bill regularly for your space, and, of course, as long as the Cloud doesn’t crash.

Can the cloud crash? Time will tell.

Some digital photographers back up their photos to an external hard drive and back up the external hard drive with a second external hard drive and back up the second external hard drive with a third external hard drive.

How many hard drives does it take to relieve your stress?

The problem with the software is more disturbing. I might manage to seal my hard drive in a waterproof, airtight, lead box and put it into the cornerstone of some new building, and it might be in perfect condition when someone opens it up in 100 years, but how will they access the documents?

I spent four years working on my doctoral dissertation at Northwestern. In that fourth year I started to worry about losing it and having to start over, so every few weeks I would make copies on 3.5-in. floppy discs and hide them in my house, office, car, my mother’s apartment, and in places I can’t even remember.

Every now and then one turns up. Of course I can’t read them anymore because I don’t have a floppy disc drive on my computer. In fact, my new Apple laptop doesn’t even take CDs.

Amazingly, the dissertation copy that transferred from computer to new computer over the years still survives. Recently I tried to print part of it for a class I am teaching, but I discovered that Microsoft Word couldn’t open Word documents that were composed in the 1990s.


Now, think of all the treasures unearthed in Pompeii, many looking as if they were freshly crafted. If Etna erupted today, and someone dug up your laptop in the ruins 2,000 years from now, would they be able to fire up your hard drive and download your work?

I think not.

The Rosetta Stone and the mosaics of Crete were made to last. Carving in stone and fashioning color tiles with pigments that will not fade were the cutting-edge technology in their day, and they are just as valuable in our time as well.

Perhaps it’s time we stopped thinking about digital as a replacement for print and started looking at it as a partner for print.

Archival inks and papers are available for photographs and documents. Important contracts, digital images, and cultural records like employee newspapers can be printed and stored. We can use the digital versions for email, computer filing, and digital publications, but can also print the important artifacts and save them.

Each new development in the computer industry seems like a futuristic, final accomplishment, but the only consistency in computer science is its mutability. Unless we enter a post-apocalyptic age where new technology is no longer developed, storage devices and software will be upgraded yearly, and eventually the digital record of today’s culture will become inaccessible.

We don’t need to print every document and photograph, just the important ones. If you are wondering where to store them, they make large metal boxes with drawers; you can find them at Goodwill. They’re called file cabinets.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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