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What is “IT”? : Technology and Digital Obsolescence

October 29th, 2009 · No Comments

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Fast, easy and cheap. This was the title of a recipe book my mother created for me when I left home and entered the “real world,” but it can also describe the ideal technology for dealing with digital obsolescence. Who wouldn’t want technology that is fast, easy and cheap? It’s straightforward (“I’d like to order the archival program that is fast, easy and cheap, please”) and it certainly rolls off the tongue nicely. But what exactly does fast, easy and cheap mean?

Let’s tackle each element on its own:
Fast – You can quickly enter information.
Easy – You know exactly what information to enter and where to find it.
Cheap – You can do all this within your ridiculously slashed budget.

Ideal technology solution – DONE! – just like Mom’s enchilada casserole. What’s that, you ask? It’s one of Mom’s fast, easy and cheap recipes: every ingredient comes from a can, my husband hates it and there’s nothing remotely close to authentic about it (unless you think Hormel chili is Mexican food).

Hmm… maybe fast, easy and cheap isn’t the ideal technology after all… Maybe the solution to digital obsolescence is more complex.

For starters, what is digital obsolescence? Neither the SAA glossary nor Merriam-Webster offers a definition, but the latter defines obsolete as “no longer in use.” The Jem Report (http://www.thejemreport.com/content/view/33/74) provides a bit more meaning: “Obsolete means that the equipment in question is no longer valid or able to be used in the modern context.” (The Report also declares obsolete “the most misused word in the history of computing.”)

So if digitally obsolete files can no longer be used in the modern context, than the ideal technology is one that can read and display these files. Well that was easy! (Not to mention fast, and since you’re reading this for free… you get the idea.)

Not so fast. Even if a program reads and displays the files, it may not render the files the same way. So what? Maureen Pennock (http://digitalarchiving.wordpress.com/2009/04/16/authenticity-digital-obsolescence) provides several excellent examples as to why this may concern archivists and it all comes down to authenticity. Programs that simply read and display may alter document formatting, change fonts, remove headers, alter formulas and delete hidden characters; all of which may be valuable to future researchers.

Even the simple act of preserving content by printing it onto paper may cause loss of data, such as mathematical equations embedded in Excel files; loss of image quality, such as an original piece of digital art created at 600 dpi and printed from a desktop printer that can only output 150 dpi; or loss of original point of view, such as a PowerPoint presentation meant to be viewed on a computer screen.

Suddenly the simple issue of reading obsolete files becomes a more complex issue of preserving digital authenticity.

Remember how there’s nothing authentic in enchilada casserole? Sure it’s fast, easy and cheap; but it sacrifices authenticity. Is the same true for technology? In the ideal world we want fast, easy and cheap, but in the real world, we may have to pick one.

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Category: What is IT?