What is Digital Decomposition and Data Degradation?


Did you know that the files you store digitally (on CDs, hard drives, SSDs, memory cards) are more fragile than physical files? It’s true: just as our photographs and printed files turn yellow and wear out over time, similar things also happen with your digital files and data. So, are your digital files safe? How does data degrade and what can you do to prevent degradation of your data?

What is digital decomposition?

Digital degradation is the gradual degradation, decomposition and wear and tear of data stored on the computer. These include hard drives, SSDs, USB drives, CDs, etc. Contrary to popular belief, files stored on computers tend to deteriorate and can often be rendered unusable or unrecoverable. Digital degradation can also be referred to as data decay or data degradation.

What are the causes of digital degradation?

Digital degradation is caused by storage device failures. When data gets degraded, files such as documents, pictures, videos, and programs can be lost or tampered with. So what is causing this degradation or degradation of digital data?

1. Advancement of storage devices

Technology evolves rapidly over the years. The storage devices you know today didn’t exist 40 years ago. The world went from Drum Memory and Uniservo in the 1950s to floppy disks and cassettes that could only store a few megabytes of data in the 1970s and now to hard drives (HDDs), Solid State Drives (SSDs), and SD drives in cards that can store large gigabytes of data.

Related: SSD vs HDD: Which Storage Device Should You Choose?


While these advancements have benefits, they also make data stored in older storage devices obsolete. As the storage devices improve and change, the devices for reading data also change. Files stored on a floppy disk would now be impossible to read because the USD devices to read them are no longer available. One thing to note is that technological advancements are inevitable, and the storage devices we use today may well be made history in a few decades.

2. Hardware failure

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Although data is software, it is stored in hardware devices, which are prone to failure. For example, data degradation can occur in RAM (random access memory) when electrons in capacitors and transistors leak or scatter. Leaks also occur in SSDs and flash memories where the electrical charges stored in the drives are lost due to general wear and tear resulting in loss of data.

Electrical leaks aren’t the only source of data degradation. Hard drives use magnetic storage and over time lose their magnetic orientation. Prolonged exposure to damp or wet conditions may also affect the material and cause degradation.

Link rot is a type of digital degradation that occurs entirely on the Internet. A lot of data is stored on the Internet through websites. Video, audio, and text files are all uploaded to the web. But websites can be deleted or stop working. This means that the links to the website are broken and the stored data is inaccessible.

Link rot also happens in social media. If an account is deleted or a social media channel like YouTube or Instagram goes down permanently, billions of images, videos, audio files and text files would disappear forever.

How to prevent data degradation?

The most effective way to prevent data degradation is to back up your files. You can never be too secure. All files on your computer, phone and social networks should be securely copied and backed up. Make sure you make multiple copies of all your files on different storage devices. In this way, the risks of data degradation are reduced.

Most importantly, back up the files to the cloud. The cloud is software and an Internet service that allows you to download and access your data from any computer. The cloud is more efficient and secure than copying files to hardware storage devices. Here are the best free cloud storage providers you can consider using.

Are your digital files safe?

Not necessarily. Hardware devices can be corrupted. Your computer could be hacked and erased, and your storage devices might not last for decades. All of these contribute to the problems posed by digital degradation. Making sure to back up your files would go a long way in preserving your data.


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