Tag Archives: obsolescence

Bit Rot is In Your Future


If you are over the age of 55 or 60 you may well have some 8-track cassettes still stashed in the trunk (or boot if you’re a Brit) of your car. If you’re over 50 it’s possible that you may have some old floppy disks or regular music cassettes stored in a bottom drawer. If you’re over 40 you’re likely to have boxes of old VHS tapes and crate-loads of CDs (or even laser disks) under your bed. So, if you fall into one of these categories most of the content memorized on any of these media types is now very likely to be beyond your reach — your car (hopefully) does not have an 8-track player; you dumped your Sony Walkman for an iPod; and your CDs have been rendered obsolete by music that descends to your ears from the “cloud”.

[Of course, 45s and 33s still seem to have a peculiar and lasting appeal — and thanks to the analog characteristics of vinyl the music encoded in the spiral grooves is still relatively easily accessible. But this will be the subject of another post].

So our technological progress, paradoxically, comes at a cost. As our technologies become simpler to use and content becomes easier to construct and disseminate, it becomes “bit rot” for future generations. That is, our digital present will become lost to more advanced technologies in the future. One solution would be to hold on to your 8-track player. But, Vint Cerf, currently a VP at Google and one of the founding fathers of the internet, has other ideas.

From the Guardian:

Piles of digitised material – from blogs, tweets, pictures and videos, to official documents such as court rulings and emails – may be lost forever because the programs needed to view them will become defunct, Google’s vice-president has warned.

Humanity’s first steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, Vint Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, warning that we faced a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” through what he called “bit rot”, where old computer files become useless junk.

Cerf called for the development of “digital vellum” to preserve old software and hardware so that out-of-date files could be recovered no matter how old they are.

“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history,” he said.

“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future,” he added.

The warning highlights an irony at the heart of modern technology, where music, photos, letters and other documents are digitised in the hope of ensuring their long-term survival. But while researchers are making progress in storing digital files for centuries, the programs and hardware needed to make sense of the files are continually falling out of use.

“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. We digitise things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised,” Cerf told the Guardian. “If there are photos you really care about, print them out.”


Ancient civilisations suffered no such problems, because histories written in cuneiform on baked clay tablets, or rolled papyrus scrolls, needed only eyes to read them. To study today’s culture, future scholars would be faced with PDFs, Word documents, and hundreds of other file types that can only be interpreted with dedicated software and sometimes hardware too.

The problem is already here. In the 1980s, it was routine to save documents on floppy disks, upload Jet Set Willy from cassette to the ZX spectrum, slaughter aliens with a Quickfire II joystick, and have Atari games cartridges in the attic. Even if the disks and cassettes are in good condition, the equipment needed to run them is mostly found only in museums.

The rise of gaming has its own place in the story of digital culture, but Cerf warns that important political and historical documents will also be lost to bit rot. In 2005, American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, describing how Lincoln hired those who ran against him for presidency. She went to libraries around the US, found the physical letters of the people involved, and reconstructed their conversations. “In today’s world those letters would be emails and the chances of finding them will be vanishingly small 100 years from now,” said Cerf.

He concedes that historians will take steps to preserve material considered important by today’s standards, but argues that the significance of documents and correspondence is often not fully appreciated until hundreds of years later. Historians have learned how the greatest mathematician of antiquity considered the concept of infinity and anticipated calculus in 3BC after the Archimedes palimpsest was found hidden under the words of a Byzantine prayer book from the 13th century. “We’ve been surprised by what we’ve learned from objects that have been preserved purely by happenstance that give us insights into an earlier civilisation,” he said.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have made headway towards a solution to bit rot, or at least a partial one. There, Mahadev Satyanarayanan takes digital snapshots of computer hard drives while they run different software programs. These can then be uploaded to a computer that mimics the one the software ran on. The result is a computer that can read otherwise defunct files. Under a project called Olive, the researchers have archived Mystery House, the original 1982 graphic adventure game for the Apple II, an early version of WordPerfect, and Doom, the original 1993 first person shooter game.

Inventing new technology is only half the battle, though. More difficult still could be navigating the legal permissions to copy and store software before it dies. When IT companies go out of business, or stop supporting their products, they may sell the rights on, making it a nightmarish task to get approval.

Read the entire article here.

Image: 1978 AMC Matador sedan red NC detail of factory AM-FM-stereo-8-track unit. Courtesy of CZmarlin / Wikipedia.

Zombie Technologies

Next time Halloween festivities roll around consider dressing up as a fax machine — one of several technologies that seems unwilling to die.

From Wired:

One of the things we love about technology is how fast it moves. New products and new services are solving our problems all the time, improving our connectivity and user experience on a nigh-daily basis.

But underneath sit the technologies that just keep hanging on. Every flesh wound, every injury, every rupture of their carcass levied by a new device or new method of doing things doesn’t merit even so much as a flinch from them. They keep moving, slowly but surely, eating away at our livelihoods. They are the undead of the technology world, and they’re coming for your brains.

Below, you’ll find some of technology’s more persistent walkers—every time we seem to kill them off, more hordes still clinging to their past relevancy lumber up to distract you. It’s about time we lodged an axe in their skulls.

Oddly specific yet totally unhelpful error codes

It’s common when you’re troubleshooting hardware and software—something, somewhere throws an error code that pairs an incredibly specific alphanumerical code (“0x000000F4”) with a completely generic and unhelpful message like “an unknown error occurred” or “a problem has been detected.”

Back in computing’s early days, the desire to use these codes instead of providing detailed troubleshooting guides made sense—storage space was at a premium, Internet connectivity could not be assumed, and it was a safe bet that the software in question came with some tome-like manual to assist people in the event of problems. Now, with connectivity virtually omnipresent and storage space a non-issue, it’s not clear why codes like these don’t link to more helpful information in some way.

All too often, you’re left to take the law into your own hands. Armed with your error code, you head over to your search engine of choice and punch it in. At this point, one of two things can happen, and I’m not sure which is more infuriating: you either find an expanded, totally helpful explanation of the code and how to fix it on the official support website (could you really not have built that into the software itself?), or, alternatively, you find a bunch of desperate, inconclusive forum posts that offer no additional insight into the problem (though they do offer insight into the absurdity of the human condition). There has to be a better way.

Copper landlines

I’ve been through the Northeast blackout, the 9-11 attacks, and Hurricane Sandy, all of which took out cell service at the same time family and friends were most anxious to get in touch. So I’m a prime candidate for maintaining a landline, which carries enough power to run phones, often provided by a facility with a backup generator. And, in fact, I’ve tried to retain one. But corporate indifference has turned copper wiring into the technology of the living dead.

Verizon really wants you to have two things: cellular service and FiOS. Except it doesn’t actually want to give you FiOS—the company has stopped expanding its fiber footprint, and it’s moving with the speed of a glacier to hook up neighborhoods that are FiOS accessible. That has left Verizon in a position where the company will offer you cell service, but, if you don’t want that, it will stick you with a technology it no longer wants to support: service over copper wires.

This was made explicit in the wake of Sandy when a shore community that had seen its wires washed out was offered cellular service as a replacement. When the community demanded wires, Verizon backed down and gave it FiOS. But the issue shows up in countless other ways. One of our editors recently decided to have DSL service over copper wire activated in his apartment; Verizon took two weeks to actually get the job done.

I stuck with Verizon DSL in the hope that I would be able to transfer directly to FiOS when it finally got activated. But Verizon’s indifference to wired service led to a six-month nightmare. I’d experience erratic DSL, call for Verizon for help, and have it fixed through a process that cut off the phone service. Getting the phone service restored would degrade the DSL. On it went until I gave up and switched to cable—which was a good thing, because it took Verizon about two years to finally put fiber in place.

At the moment, AT&T still considers copper wiring central to its services, but it’s not clear how long that position will remain tenable. If AT&T’s position changes, then it’s likely that the company will also treat the copper just as Verizon has: like a technology that’s dead even as it continues to shamble around causing trouble.

The scary text mode insanity lying in wait beneath it all

PRESS DEL TO ENTER SETUP. Oh, BIOS, how I hate thee. Often the very first thing you have to deal with when dragging a new computer out of the box is the text mode BIOS setup screen, where you have to figure out how to turn on support for legacy USB devices, or change the boot order, or disable PXE booting, or force onboard video to work, or any number of other crazy things. It’s like being sucked into a time warp back into 1992.

Though slowly being replaced across the board by UEFI, BIOS setup screens are definitely still a thing even on new hardware—the small dual-Ethernet server I purchased just a month ago to serve as my new firewall required me to spend minutes figuring out which of its onboard USB ports were legacy-enabled and then which key summoned the setup screen (F2? Delete? F10? F1? IT’S NEVER THE SAME ONE!). Once in, I had to figure out how to enable USB device booting so that I could get Smoothwall installed, but the computer inexplicably wouldn’t boot from my carefully prepared USB stick, even though the stick worked great on the other servers in the closet. I ended up having to install from a USB CD-ROM drive instead.

Many motherboard OEMs now provide a way to adjust BIOS options from inside of Windows, which is great, but that won’t necessarily help you on a fresh Windows install (or on a computer you’ve parted together yourself and on which you haven’t installed the OEM’s universally hideous BIOS tweaking application). UEFI as a replacement has been steadily gaining ground for almost three years now, but we’ve likely got many more years of occasionally having to reboot and hold DEL to adjust some esoteric settings. Ugh.

Fax machines, and the general concept of faxing

Faxing has a longer and more venerable history than I would have guessed, based on how abhorrent it is in the modern day. The first commercial telefaxing service was established in France in 1865 via wire transmission, and we started sending faxes over phone lines circa 1964. For a long time, faxing was actually the best and fastest way to get a photographic clone of one piece of paper to an entirely different geographical location.

Then came e-mail. And digital cameras. And electronic signatures. And smartphones with digital cameras. And Passbook. And cloud storage. Yet people continue to ask me to fax them things.

When it comes to signing contracts or verifying or simply passing along information, digital copies, properly backed up with redundant files everywhere, are easier to deal with at literally every step in the process. On the very rare occasion that a physical piece of paper is absolutely necessary, here: e-mail it; I will sign it electronically and e-mail it back to you, and you print it out. You already sent me that piece of paper? I will sign it, take a picture with my phone, e-mail that picture to you, and you print it out. Everyone comes out ahead, no one has to deal with a fax machine.

That a business, let alone businesses, have actually cropped up around the concept of allowing people to e-mail documents to a fax number is ludicrous. Get an e-mail address. They are free. Get a printer. It is cheaper than a fax machine. Don’t get a printer that is also a fax machine, because then you are just encouraging this technological concept to live on, when, in fact, it needs to die.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Mobiledia.

Daddy, What’s a Stamp?

Sadly for philatelists and aficionados of these sticky, miniature works of art, stamps may be doomed to the same fate as cassette tapes, vinyl disks, 35mm film, floppy drives, and wrist watches.

From the New York Times:

It could easily be a glorious Pharaonic tomb, stocked with all the sustenance a philatelist might require for the afterlife. The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, which opened on Sunday here at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, includes an $18 million array of display spaces, artifacts, trays and touch screens. Its 20,000 items have been culled from more than 6 million at the museum, one of the world’s great collections. And the gallery’s 12,000 square feet are devoted to a single object that seems on the brink of extinction: the postage stamp.

But why should those of us who have never been consumed by the desire to hunt down a rare Inverted Jenny or a Brazilian Bull’s-eye give stamps (or their extinction) much attention? For most of us, they are utilitarian: we lick or peel, stick and use. And if, like me, you find a serious drop-off in the aesthetic values of American stamps in recent decades, what inspiration is there for collecting or contemplation? Why care that neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night are any longer the main hurdles for snail mail’s continuing rounds?

The Post Office has been struggling to reinvent itself, reeling from deficits and awaiting rescue. Maybe that’s why many recent stamps seem so hyped-up and saturated with color: they are straining to cheer up mail carriers, as well as customers.

But this new exhibit space provides more vigorous cheer. It is the world’s largest stamp gallery, we are told, made possible by a $10 million gift from William H. Gross, founder of the investment company Pimco. And surprisingly, until now, the National Postal Museum has had no major philatelic display showing off its collection; its main galleries focus on mail technology and delivery, not its sticky symbols. You might not begin collecting stamps immediately after a visit to their new home (though every visitor will get a head start with a selection of six free stamps), but you will start to think differently about them. Their current inconsequence is a far cry from the trust and influence they once possessed.

The Postmaster General, for example, was once so powerful that the position was included in the president’s cabinet. The mails were once the nation’s premier courier; in 1958, even the priceless Hope diamond was entrusted to the Postal Service for a cost of $145.29, including $1 million worth of insurance. (The heavily stamped and metered envelope is here; the diamond is nearby, at the Natural History Museum.)

And stamp images once had so much authority that in 1901, an engineer opposed to the digging of a Nicaraguan canal scared United States senators by presenting each with a Nicaraguan stamp showing the eruption of the nearby Mount Momotombo; the canal was dug in Panama instead.

We see, too, how mail delivery affected all modes of transportation. Nineteenth-century ocean liners could carry passengers because they were heavily subsidized by government mails. The RMS Titanic was so called because it was a Royal Mail Ship: we see a rusty set of mail keys, found on the drowned body of the Titanic’s sea post clerk.

The museum’s philatelic curator, Cheryl R. Ganz, explores the full range of stamps’ importance. Some are collector’s “gems,” including the famous Inverted Jenny stamp of 1918, in which a flying biplane was printed upside down on a single sheet of 100 stamps. There are discussions of delivery methods (in 1929, seaplanes carrying mail were catapulted off ocean liners); disasters (the Church Street post box damaged on Sept. 11 is here); and counterfeits (Jean de Sperati, once the “world’s most famous stamp forger,” was arrested in France in 1943 “for exporting rare stamps without a license,” but he beat the charge by proving that the stamps were his own forgeries).

There are also primers on stamp preservation, manufacture and design. On a touch-table, you can survey American stamps released since World War II, then e-mail a selection. One wall is lined with photographs of famous stamp collectors, offering riddlers untapped possibilities: How was Charlie Chaplin like Ayn Rand? What did Franklin Delano Roosevelt share with John Lennon?

Collectors, we see too, are entranced by the stamp’s physical trace, the path it takes through the world. And many have arrived here. Even the most experienced philatelist will find wonders in hundreds of sliding vertical frames that can be pulled out from the walls. One room offers an in-depth survey of American stamps; another space provides a broad international sampling.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google search.