Over the last few years, we have been digitizing everything we consume. Our books are eBooks, our music is saved as mp3s, and our movies and TV shows are streamed straight from Netflix. We have made this change because it makes everything so easy and convenient. We can access almost anything online near instantly and we don’t need to keep huge piles of stuff around, just in case we feel like reading a book or watching a movie from a few years ago. A whole world of culture is right at our fingertips.
Our move towards storing more and more of our culture digitally comes with a huge risk – it is extremely hard to preserve. Hard drives can fail or file formats can become outdated and suddenly we don’t have access to whatever was stored that way. Without careful consideration towards saving it, data can be lost very easily.
This is very different from how we used to preserve our art. We still have paintings, sculptures, books, and more from hundreds of years ago because they were made in ways that ensured their preservation for so long. Statues age slowly, and while canvas and books can be damaged, they can often be restored. This isn’t the case for modern digital storage.
A digital file is only useful for as long as there is a way to store and read that file. If either of those two parts is gone, then whatever was in that file is also gone. As more and more of our culture gets moved to this digital system, the risk of losing something becomes greater and greater. What happens in a few years when our current eBook formats become outdated, when there isn’t software left that can read them? The book is gone forever. If the book had been printed on paper, then anybody that can read it would know what it says. Without the tools to read the computer data, there is no way to know what the words meant for human eyes actually are.
This might seem like it isn’t a huge problem, that someone will find a solution before we lose anything too important, but that is not true at all. We are already losing parts of our culture. The Computerspielemuseum in Berlin is dedicated to preserving video games. Its 30,000 game collection is shrinking, though, because of how those games are stored. The batteries that power many of the museum’s old game cartridges have been running out, and with no replacements available, the collection is slowly disappearing.
Some attempts have been made to preserve the games by copying them to computers and playing them with game system emulators. Many video game publishers have threatened to take the museum to court, though, claiming violation of copyright law. Because of the publishers, the museum had to stop copying its games and since publishers themselves are not keeping backups, the games are just disappearing.
Caught in this trap, the Computerspeilemuseum has been forced to leave parts of its collection, games less than three decades old, to this inevitable death. Now, the only remaining copies of those games are the illegal copies saved on a small number of personal hard drives around the world. There is no way to track those copies down and ensure that they are kept safe. Who can say if they will still be there in a few years?
As more and more of our culture is moved to a digital format, work needs to be done to prevent losses like those occurring at the Computerspeilemuseum. Some is already being done, like the European KEEP Project, which is trying to create emulators to not only read and store any kind of digital content, but do it within the bounds of existing copyright law, but there needs to be more. When so much of what we have created exists only in the digital world, if we don’t try to save it, we will lose it.