Presentation given at the 4S Annual Meeting, Vancouver, November 2, 2006.
In library and archiving circles concerns are often raised about "digital decay." This phrase is meant to convey the notion that digital preservation technologies, which seem to promise a final escape from physicality and its inevitable degradation, are actually far more susceptible to physical breakdown and obsolescence than the paper-based technologies they have replaced. Moreover, the ability to store far more information than ever before has allowed us to postpone decisions about what is worth preserving, with the result that we have substituted mass storage for selective archiving. Thus decay at the physical level is amplified by the metaphorical decay of our systems for organization and classification. The usual responses to the specter of digital decay are either rallying cries for traditional archiving technologies, or (more often) appeals for more and better digital technologies to fight decay. These responses overlook the possibility that the vulnerability of digital media to decay may turn out to be their greatest strength. Technologies of preservation have given us access to the frozen voices of those who do not know yet, but they also reinforce the hegemony of those who know by fueling their fantasies of perfect memory. Our ever- growing archives of cultural achievements threaten to overshadow contemporary works rather than providing the mulch in which they could be cultivated. What new energies might be released through the decomposition of our accumulated knowledge? Perhaps it is time to embrace forgetting and develop technologies of decay.