Bit Rot, also referred to as data degradation, occurs when machines and software can no longer access or render files so that the viewer can view them. Typically, this occurs when newer machines try to load and view files written in older proprietary software. It can also occur if files are kept on older media and are not audited regularly to ensure they can still be read e.g. files stored on a CD or DVD that is kept in a hot car. If you do not try to play the CD, you will not know if it is still readable by the laser. Most likely, the laser cannot read the media because it has started pitting and losing the 1 & 0s that render and interpret the music.
Most people do not really think about these issues. But, Vince Cerf, Google’s vice president and one of the founders of the internet, continues to warn against “bit-rot” as it could lead to the “forgotten century” as many digital files will not be accessible due to obsolescence or bit rot.
But with today’s technology, is bitrot a concern when everything can be saved to the cloud? Simply put, yes, it is. The cloud is simple storage with no additional capabilities to ensure the formats are open source or widely adopted by a larger community. And, although it is fairly simply to put data into the cloud, it is not necessarily simple to get it out should your contract or subscription end.
The Council of State Archives declared 10/10 Electronic Records Day, to raise awareness about electronic records and the challenges they pose for modern record keeping and documenting history, culture and government. The State Archives of North Carolina is posting a series of blog posts today in honor of ER day—bit rot, management of digital files, and how you can ensure that your information persists into the future and remains accessible. While aimed primarily at government records, the information in these posts are also valuable for personal digital files and photos. We also have several guidance documents and resources on these and other topics related to digital files on our digital records policies and guidelines website as well as the digital preservation education website. Also be sure to check out what others are saying about electronic records day on social media; search hashtag #ERecsDay. Last, for a light-hearted explanation of bit rot and digital preservation, please see our video, Night of the Living Bit Rot.