The Illusory Permanence of Information Technology

Tony Peak
4 min readJul 17, 2023
Image credit: Fredy Jacob via Unsplash

I remember burning my first DVD-ROM. I thought, ‘wow, this will last me decades, and my data will be immune to viruses and accidental deletion’. I felt I’d achieved the Holy Grail of data archiving. Plus, hey, nearly 4 gigs on one disc? It seemed like science fiction.

Fast forward to 2023, with its cloud drives, external hard drives, micro SD cards, and thumb drives. My data is spread across various devices and platforms (Google Drive, Dropbox, various external hard and SSD drives). Call it an obsession, but when you’re a writer, with thousands of documents, you want to ensure the viability of your data. Plus, there’s all of my personal photos and videos. I keep carting this archive to the latest data storage method, to ensure it remains with me throughout my life.

The problem is, electronic devices, software, and digital data lack the permanence of practically any other technology. They not only aren’t built to last, but progress has moved so quickly since their inception, that electronics become outdated abruptly. I’m not complaining; I love tech that works faster and offers more features. The downside, of course, is how much of that tech ends up in a landfill, or an electronic junk sorting yard in Nigeria. We want progress, no matter the cost.

Some technologies have remained relatively unchanged over the centuries: the wheel, cutlery, gears, clothing, furniture. Their materials, and manufacturing processes, have changed many times, yet their function is the same.

Information and its dissemination, however, is constantly evolving. From clay tablets, to carved wooden sticks, to books, then to the latest mobile device, information’s medium doesn’t remain idle. We find ways to share that information faster and farther with each passing year. One downside is that electronic devices are far less durable than the aforementioned clay tablets or wooden sticks. We can still read cuneiform tablets from Sumer; good luck converting text files off a 5.25 floppy disk from the 1980s. This is a major issue regarding the passage of knowledge to future generations, and we have yet to solve it on a large scale.

Maybe that’s why there’s a nostalgia for older formats. Take vinyl records, for instance. The sound quality isn’t better, and the format is…

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Tony Peak

Science Fiction & Fantasy author, member of SFWA, HWA, & Planetary Society; represented by Ethan Ellenberg