This is why bits are better than paper


USA federal courts plan to destroy all records on judicial cases that did not go to trial that were filed between 1970 and 1995 and reduce the current retention time for other records from 25 to 15 years.

The reason is saving money. Preserving those files cost over $6.2 million last year. The new plan “will help save $7.7 million over the next 10 years”.

Of course, this is causing great concern among legal historians and advocates for public access to important information. Courts should identify records considered historic to prevent them from being destroyed, but this is costly and, above all, intrinsically flawed procedure: “No one can fully anticipate what’s important, even with a [historical] checklist, trends will be missed”, said law professor and legal history scholar Daniel R. Ernst.

This is why and how bits are better than paper. There is a lot of concern that moving from paper to bits makes information unaccessible after just a few years, but if all those records had been digital instead of paper files, conserving them would have been immensely less expensive. Probably there is no money to digitize them today, but that is another issue.

Bits can be automatically copied without losses from one physical support to another (from floppies to DVDs, from DVDs to USB keys and so on). This, and the fact that they can store any type of information (movies, CAD projects…), not just what is printable on paper, makes them a much more durable archival system than non-digital media.

The main reason why digital information is, indeed, often lost after just a few years these days is our stupidity and ignorance. As long as we tolerate that important public information is recorded in file formats that are only readable with certain version of certain programs, that information will continue to disappear as soon and as frequently as software programs change.

To know more about the importance of open file formats, please read the slides of this (non-technical!) seminar of mine, or my other articles on the same theme and on the limits of today’s ebooks.

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