How Much Does That Cool New Toy Really Cost? A Corrective View of Technology

July 2006
by Bob Seidensticker

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An extensive program of
copying works from around the known world endowed the celebrated library at
Alexandria, Egypt, with a collection of about half a million manuscripts. When
a Muslim army took the city in 640 ce,
a caliph reasoned that any document that agreed with the Koran was redundant,
and any that contradicted it was blasphemous. He ordered the library destroyed.


Historians wince at the thought of
the priceless manuscripts lost to us as a result, but we have our own version
of this story. Digital information is slipping through our fingers—not
quickly in an inferno, but gradually and relentlessly all around us. CDs,
disks, and tapes all have a surprisingly short lifetime. In theory, digital is
forever, but in practice, our records are more short-lived than they’ve ever


In 1086, 20 years after William of
Normandy conquered England in the Battle of Hastings, he commissioned the
survey of his new dominion, now known as the Doomsday Book. On the book’s 900th
anniversary, the BBC unveiled a £2.5 million updated version. With digitized
photos, maps, video, and text—in all, contributions from about a million
people—it was expected to stand next to its parchment predecessor as a
fundamental piece of scholarship.


And yet the multimedia version is
now unusable. Only a few of the custom PCs developed for the project still
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