This essay is adapted from “Proliferation and Obsolescence of the Historical Record in the Digital Era,” in Cultures of Obsolescence: History, Materiality, and the Digital Age, edited by Babette B. Tischleder and Sarah Wasserman (Palgrave, 2015).
The wholesale infrastructural shift of our civilizational resources to computers since the middle of the past century, along with the incessant drive to innovate in electronics, has brought a remarkable upheaval in our storage media, a category of technologies ranging from vats and bins to writing and ritual. In modernity, storage media are profoundly unstable, in sharp contrast to their long history: perhaps nowhere have we seen obsolescence more violent in its overthrows than in storage media over the past 50 years, both analog and digital. Consider computer punch cards, continuous form paper, vinyl records played at 78, 45, or 33 1/3 rpm, microfilm, 8-track tapes, super8, photos, slides and film strips, Betamax and VHS tapes, videodisks, audiocassettes, floppy disks of various sizes, Kodachrome and Polaroid. Who remembers the Iomega zip drive, a once avant-garde device that held all my digitally-born documents but that has now disappeared? The outmoding of storage media has become a fact of life.
Massiveness of documentation, fragility of preservation: this is our condition. How will digital records be kept alive across decades, centuries, and millennia? If history is a matter of what is stored, and if what is stored is a matter of the media available (stone, papyrus, DNA, bone, film, floppy disks), then changes in media infrastructure will mean changes in the historical record. Obsolescence of the basic media of the historical record is a fact any historian must confront, but our digital moment makes this problem particularly urgent.
It is deeply ironic that the media designed to hold culture in our age are also designed to be volatile and ephemeral. What are we to do with the graveyards of vinyl, the boxes of VHS tapes, the stashes of audiocassettes, all those entities that survive once they have been evacuated of data? What about old files, paper or digital? The latest fantasy of cost-free, smoke-free storage is “the cloud”—but the sky has long been a highly militarized and contested zone highly sensitive to ecological and other degradations. Cloud storage, of course, is not in the sky but in server farms which consume enormous amounts of electricity. “The cloud” is radically dependent on carbon. Once we find another form for massive online storage, the cloud will be one more ghost-town of abandoned structures. It is an illusion that digital storage is somehow immune to the age-old destruction to which all data are subject.
Data always take a material form, despite the many ethereal fantasies that have followed the long American romance with information technology since the nineteenth century. Several years back, I discovered a stash of 3.5 inch floppy discs dating from around 1985-1989, a time when I did intensive research and writing for my dissertation and beyond. They were all written on an early Macintosh computer whose only storage was an external drive and which took over five minutes to boot up. (A summer lightning strike brought the machine to its early demise; I had neglected to use a surge protector.) I had already managed to “migrate” several of the most important files to the PC in my university office, but there were still piles of discs full of contents unknown. Perhaps they were mostly duplicates and scrap material, but they were also a record of my writing process for a four-year period. I shuffled through the collection, pondered a bit, agonized some more, considered how little time, cash, or patience I had to sort them all out, and decided to do some future historian a favor. I threw them in the trash.
More recently, I found other accumulations in my garage while cleaning the house. One was a box of VHS tapes—mostly films that can be easily found in more recent formats, but also harder to find TV shows that we had recorded, and even more precious tapes of weddings and other family events, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. Another box was even older, and held old audiotapes, including a couple of eight-tracks, mostly cassette mix-tapes from friends and loved ones, but also several consisting of mixed spoken word and music from my courtship in the late 1970s. Why is it so hard to throw comatose collections away? One can no more throw these things away than unplug the life-support system of a loved one. These stashes of obsolete records suggest a kind of dereliction matched only by the corpse. They are our life-blood and memory distilled into external form. Each of our bodies will eventually be obsolete, but that doesn’t mean it will stop taking up space. Audiovisual and digital hardware are the memento mori for postmodern humans, reminders of what was and is no more. Know thyself: look at dead media. Throwing away old storage media would be like killing the dead.
Obsolescence has an importantly different sense than disappearance or destruction—it is precisely the persistence of the thing in a straitened or muted role, not its vanishing, that defines obsolescence.
Records of “information” always implies the necessity—and horror—of non-biodegradable build-ups. At least the corpse will decompose. Of all the many mortuary metaphors that haunt storage media, my favorite is the genizah. In the Jewish tradition the genizah is a repository for worn out Torah scrolls and other sacred writings. (The word genizah comes from the root for “to hide” and bet genizah means “treasury.”) Whatever language sacred writings are in, and whether they are read or not, they must be saved from fire and destruction, states the Talmud. Old scrolls, even if their material is worm-eaten, are to be saved up in stashes full of records too holy to discard because they contain the name of God. The genizah is a cemetery for texts too sacred (or too dangerous) to be destroyed or circulated. What about digital versions? The mind boggles about how to corral all such text, but according to a 1999 rabbinical ruling, the command to save all text containing the divine name does not apply to the pixels of computer screens, since they are nothing “more than a sequence of ones and zeroes.” One wonders what a digital genizah would look like; perhaps one already exists in Google’s servers.
Though this practice might seem exotic, we all have our genizot, stashes or caches of records haunting the nether regions of our spaces and lives that we can neither use nor can bear to throw away. We keep many precious objects in a vegetative state, their minds apparently gone but perhaps still in there somewhere and ready to speak again with the right instrument or procedure. At some level media on life support stand in for the bodily or material form of beloved things, the fragile embodiment of everything that fights against time, ourselves above all. Any form of “junk,” objects lost to use and care, is a reminder of the way that the spirit can slip away, leaving the thing behind. Part of the moral force of pointing to junk is the way that abused or neglected objects stand in for neglected or abused people. The piles of spectacles or shoes in Holocaust museums stand metonymically for things too awful to speak. And while my media cast-offs provide me the luxury of existential meditations, there is a small army of laborers, many of them children, who sift through digital detritus or “e-waste” as a way to survive in places such as Africa and China. Waste always raises questions about social justice.
In other words, obsolescence marks a weird kind of destruction, not of the material, but of its value. It is dangerous to define technology as the new and the shiny since it is always embedded in patterns of use and the pragmatic projects of living creatures, human and otherwise. Marxist and feminist thought have both shown the ways that the boundary between subject and object is a fluidly disputed ethical and political one, not one given by the nature of the material: laborers and women can be treated as expendable material, and money and art as holy. Some artworks are kept on expensive life-support while some humans are left to sift the e-waste. We are just as selective and biased in how we treat things as how we treat people. Obsolescence always raises moral questions about the subjects and objects that we neglect. It not only concerns the mysteries of incarnation, how spirits slip into and out of bodies, and those of appreciation and depreciation, but also core problems of thermodynamics, the study of order and its dissipation.
Obsolescence has an importantly different sense than disappearance or destruction—it is precisely the persistence of the thing in a straitened or muted role, not its vanishing, that defines obsolescence. Things are obsolete when they fall out of love or out of use, not when they cease to exist. Obsolescence is a key category for media theory because it points to the persistence of old media such as containers. To hold old time, we need to treasure old media.
Durability is a cultural construct, not a fact of nature. With obsolescence objects remain but are no longer loved or needed, as Michael Thompson has taught us so well in his classic book Rubbish Theory on the creation and destruction of value. Rubbish and valuables are not fixed by nature, but are malleable categories. Durable objects require maintenance and preservation, both symbolic and material, for their upkeep. Durability is a political, economic, and historic choice made by the discourse of connoisseurship and art-world institutions to provide continued life to objects. Durables depend on practices of regular topping up; each book in a university library, for instance, can cost about five dollars annually to maintain. No object is fully durable, even immortal ones. The Bible, Shakespeare, and Beethoven have all undergone important changes as new manuscripts have been found, and the “restoration” of weathered paintings is a controversial practice. Durability is a privilege.
Nature utterly lacks a throw-away ethic in its ferocious conservation and reuse of ancient structures. But it also utterly lacks any archive that preserves artifacts forever.
In the United States, obsolescence was a huge cultural shift from the previous regime of reuse, as Susan Strasser has shown. Nineteenth-century Americans had no sense of a throw-away ethic, but across social classes were active caretakers of their material goods. Around 1900, with the rise of national advertising, the culture of consumption arose to solve the problem of industrial overproduction. The standard story is that advertisers taught people to want more, but clearly something subtler happened as well: consumerism not only stoked desire, but also taught us not to desire, not to love what is last-season or passé, even if it is perfectly usable.
Most people toss their old media, but a few make art from them, such as Nick Gentry’s floppy disc paintings or Mika Taanila’s series of photographs made of old movie videotapes destroyed by a method depicted in them. Another case is the explosion of book art in recent years, as Garrett Stewart has shown in Bookwork. As the “content” of books gets liquefied into indifferent e-books, with their apparent indifference to mediation, everything else about the book remains subject to creative appropriation. All that is susceptible to fetishism remains, the stuff that Benjamin loved so much about his library (content per se is pretty hard to fetishize). Obsolescence can be a form of foregrounding or strange-making, to use the formalist terms. The fantasy of digital content indifferent to platform and thus of an unproblematic future will soon fade when the lineaments of the internet’s are cast into relief by some new successor system that marks its limits and shape.
How then should we think about the inevitable destruction that awaits all material media? Is there obsolescence in nature as well as culture? Is the history of life on earth, in which 99 percent of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct, one of obsolescence? Extinction, of course, is more a matter of destruction than obsolescence, since obsolescence requires the persistence of matter bereft of spirit and use. But on the other hand, nothing really ever disappears; it only gets recycled.
Nature utterly lacks a throw-away ethic in its ferocious conservation and reuse of ancient structures. But it also utterly lacks any archive that preserves artifacts forever. In nature nothing ever ultimately disappears but nothing ever ultimately lasts. Our molecules of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, spiced with many smaller trace elements, will not cease to exist—they will live on, only in a form less lovable and less usable than what we currently inhabit. We humans seek for ultimate meaning and what we find is lessons in the inevitable collapse of all our meanings.
This long view is both comforting and chilling. Emerson invited his readers to “respect the Naturlangsamkeit which hardens the ruby in a million years, and works in duration in which Alps and Andes come and go like rainbows.” He also famously thought the “evanescence and lubricity of all objects . . . to be the most unhandsome part of our condition.” In modernity, we have learned that even stars die, and we are assured that our Earth will be incinerated within a few short billion years. If nothing died, what a mess we’d be, and if nothing were deleted, what a tragedy. All things must pass but nothing ever disappears; only a deity could wipe the record completely clean. Atonement makes the past no more written in indelible ink. That God can forget—on this hangs our hope! Obsolescence evokes art and deletion means forgiveness. It is not, perhaps, in the end, such an unhandsome part of our condition, this evanescence and lubricity of objects.
John Durham Peters is the A. Craig Baird professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. His interests include media and cultural history, communication and social theory, and understanding communication in its broad historical, legal, philosophical, religious, and technological context. His most recent book is The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media.
 James W. Carey, Communication as Culture (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), chap. 5.
 See the fascinating study of how media devices move through the household over their life span: Thorsten Quandt and Thilo von Pape, “Living in the Mediatope: A Multimethod Study on the Evolution of Media Technologies in the Domestic Environment,” The Information Society 26 (2010): 330-345.
 Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath, Folio 115a, halakah.com/shabbath/shabbath_115.html, and “Genizah,” www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6582-genizah, both accessed 8 July 2013.
 Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), xxx.
 Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Henry Holt, 1999).
 Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
 Anne Danielsen and Arnt Maasø, “Mediating Music: Materiality and Silence in Madonna’s ‘Don’t Tell Me,’” Popular Music 28:2 (2009): 127-142.
 “Friendship,” Selected Writings of Emerson, ed. Donald McQuade (New York: Modern Library, 1981), 211.
 “Experience,” Selected Writings, 328.
Image from Flickr via Thomas Hawk