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4 If It Ain’t Broke, Be Grateful

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, ...

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