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Digital Objects Degrade Faster Than Physical Objects

Despite the promise of a digital object’s lasting lifetime, in practice digital objects degrade faster than books or other physical information containers.

This can occur when:

This degradation can happen on the order of a few years. The Iomega Jaz drive was only sold for 7 years.

Compare with books, important documents, and artworks, which often last for decades without any particular preservation efforts (e.g., stored in a box in the attic). Some works have survived millennia. (Will that Photoshop document be openable in two thousand years?)

  1. Edward M. Corrado and Heather Moulaison Sandy. Digital Preservation for Libraries, Archives, & Museums. 2017.

Generation Loss

Despite the promise that a digital object can be perfectly copied, in practice digital copies experience generation loss.

Platforms lossily recompress images and video on upload. Metadata is stripped or altered. Content is trimmed and cropped, audio added, replaced, or muted, overlays, watermarks, intros, and outtros are added.

People often shift text to images or video (think a screenshot of the Notes app), I think for several reasons:

1 I’m not saying this is good provenance, but I’ve definitely seen people use screenshots of text for this purpose.
2 This might be less effective as more extensive image analysis happens, but for now this remains effective in a lot of places.

These shifted objects become the objects that are further copied, so even text can suffer generation loss.

Digital Archives Require Maintenance