Personal Digital Archeology Illustrated

Bundled up inside sectors of many of our hard disks you can find the traces of our digital past recursively tucked away in a hastily named directories. Our Old Files form layers of digital sediment ripe for personal digital archeology.

Old Files, XKCD 1360
Old Files, XKCD 1360

I love how this XKCD illustrates the way that personal computing becomes inherently archeological. Until recently, the cost of storage space kept plummeting.  Along with that, the nature of search in file systems enabled many of us to move from filing to piling. The result is something like the stratigraphy in the comic.

It was easy to just stick “Old Desktop” inside the new documents folder, which itself had the stack of files you recovered from an earlier hard drive crash. Nested deeper and deeper down you’ve got your high school zip disk.

If you tunnel down in there, you can even find out things about yourself you had forgotten. In this case, an 850k text file with forgotten poetry is uncovered.

As scholars in the future work with logical or forensic disk images of personal computers in the future their work will likely look much the same. Except they won’t have the benefit of memory to fill in the blanks about how this order came to be.

The comic is chaotic, haphazardly named files  and folders created on the fly become the long term structure of the data. Still, we get the joke because we can understand what these layers and files mean without knowing anything about their contents. We see the high school love note, the pile of files shared over Kazaa, the collection of pictures from Facebook. The directory names, file names and file extensions tell us a great deal about what we are looking at. Even in the chaos there is a lot of context and description in the arrangement of the files.

Interestingly, as we increasingly move to using cloud storage for more and more computing and as the days of really great Kryder rate continues to level off this is going to likely only be the case for a particular period in the history of personal computing. In any event, when we right up the digital historiography and source criticism text books for historians of the near and distant future who want to make sense of our old hard drives we should print up and explicate this XKCD and feature it on the cover.

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