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Papyrus fragments of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri from the 1st century AD, inscribed with the lyric poetry of, perhaps, Sappho, P.Oxy.XXI 2299

It would be interesting to see which of the two media, papyrus or digital files, will have had a higher survival rate. Both writing supports suffer from chronic fragility. Papyrus stands no chance in damp climates, while digital files make no sense in a world without electricity and high tech. The latter observation may be objected to on the grounds that even when papyrus survives, it takes a palaeographer, at the very least, to render the writing intelligible, just as a machine would be required to read the documents embedded in those digital files. Yet, in one case or another, the medium alone would be required to safeguard the inscribed text, regardless of questions of transcription.

While papyrus, like most physical materials, can survive in fragments, a digital file, once corrupted or fragmented, may not be recoverable. A fragmented file does the opposite of a physical fragment: it undoes itself, it is as if it doesn’t exist, a simple trace in an archeological park.

Survival is also related to destructibility. A book, however small it may be, burns a lot more slowly than it takes a digital file to disappear from a memory stick or SSD drive. And while you may kick a book out of a fire and rescue some of it, there’s not much you can do once you’ve clicked that delete button.

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