At the time of writing, Joe Donnelly is playing the last ‘Drive’ on TXFM, Ireland’s smallest commercial radio station, but one which has arguably contributed the most to emerging Irish musicians, and quite frankly, the most fun radio station around. TXFM, and its earlier incarnation PhantomFM which I first discovetxfmred in the late 1990s have consistently played excellent music amid airwaves heavy with forgettable tunes. The demise of TXFM, which ends transmission at 8pm this evening, is a reflection of the vulnerability of digital data to sudden change, and begs the question – what is the lifespan of digital data?

Much of the information generated in the field of cultural heritage has been in digital format since the late 1990s. Increasingly over the last five years, more and more archival and digital resources have become available online, such as the resources of the National Library of Ireland, the British Library and others are increasingly available. However, accessibility to these information resources is reliant on accessibility to the platform which hosts them. Similarly the explosion in photographs, maps, reports, scans, 3D-images and the plethora of digital data generated by modern audiences has created an incredible amount of information. However, there remains the thorny problem of how long does this information last. Can we open a digital image from 15 years ago? How long does an audio file last? What is the lifespan of digital data?Buildings, sculpture, landscapes are physical objects which experience weathering and alteration, and digital data is similarly vulnerable to deterioration. This is a long-standing discussion, with is own specialist research and conferences. However, from a practical perspective it is useful to consider the digital storage we have become accustomed to (before the advent of off-site storage and cloud computing). CDs, DVDs and other optical storage have a lifespan of perhaps 10-25 years, though this is dependent on environmental factors such as how often the disc is used. Optical media is extremely susceptible to damage as there is little protection for the readable surface. Hard disk drives have a lifespan of c.5years, flash drives perhaps 10 years (flash drives are harder to estimate as memory degrades depending on write cycles rather than due to age).

Another difficulty in estimating digital lifespans is that these isn’t a great deal of data (yet) on degradation, because its only really happening now and  will only become apparent in future years – much of the intricacies are new challenges. However, the degradation of digital data already impinges on heritage studies, perhaps most noticeably on the difficulties in accessing information generated about cultural heritage sites in the last twenty years. Much of the professional ‘grey literature’ in the form of professional reports and digital data generated on older platforms of the 1990s and 2000s is increasingly difficult to access. How many have a floppy disk drive? Assuming physical compatibility is achieved, there is then the hurdle of obsolescence in accessing files in Windows 95, 98 etc. Files that have not been migrated may not be readable by the latest version of the software, and the older version software may no longer be available, or may not run on a current computer, or under a current version of the operating system.

On that rather depressing note, as Joe Donnelly plays Radiohead in his last hour of Drive on TXFM, there are always ways of accessing information – even TXFM which lives on as long as their website is up and programs remain available, though for who knows how long, meanwhile elsewhere:

Thanks Joe, and everyone at TXFM and Phantom for sharing all that incredible music – so many bands and songs to enjoy 🙂