Technologically Induced Social Alzheimers

David Pogue has a nice little piece called “Why We Make Home Videos” on the NYT website. It’s basically a personal tale in defense of home videos, but he starts out reminding readers of something he’s written about a number of times, data rot.

Data rot is the tendency for technology to evolve so fast that we are all left with lots of information stored on media for which there no longer exist a device to play it. The implication of this is that society as a whole “has” lots of information that it might have no way of accessing. Hence the title of this post. Of course the ironic thing is that the social problem is hardware outstripping the memory while in the personal case its sort of the hardware failing the memory.

But it points to an interesting idea: perhaps the explosion of information — and our general capacity to store, move, and process it — comes with some self limiting counter tendencies. One is complexity — too much information, no one has the synoptic view or cleverness to understand what it means. Another is the connect the dots problem I’ve written about here. Yet another is data rot — backwards compatibility always has its limits.  I wonder if anyone has sat down to map out what sorts of information are likely to move into the darkness of rot when.  Are all the data on punch cards gone from the social memory yet?  How about all those 24 inch fixed disk platters we used to get mounted on our System/370 machine?  I know my college thesis on it’s 8 inch IBM Series/1 diskette is basically lost to time.  What else?

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Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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