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What is Bitrot?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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Bitrot is an interesting term that has two separate meanings. One of them relates to electronic data decay lacking apparent cause; the other to digital art imitating life by reflecting natural decay in digital environments.

As to the first meaning, many of us have had the experience of saving a prized program, game or file to a storage medium for safekeeping. The file sits there, undisturbed and unaccessed for months, maybe even years. Finally a day comes when we go to the hard drive or pull the prized floppy or memory stick out and you can’t access the data!

How can this be? In many cases there is no chance of external corruption. In fact, the data might have been accessed several times just fine in the past. So what’s happened in that period of time when the data simply sat in storage? Some would explain it by saying, bitrot happens!

Though experts haven’t agreed upon the mechanics, explanations for bitrot abound. For a time, rumor had it that cosmic rays caused bitrot, though this theory was eventually served up as urban legend. Others claim alpha particles, naturally generated within microchips, might cause bitrot. Some “memory stick theories” state electrically charged data simply “leaks” from chips after a period of years.

While one camp is intent on detecting and preventing bitrot, another is interested in developing algorithms to produce it, at least in a controlled manner. As virtual worlds gain popularity, programmers are striving to make virtual environments as life-like as possible. One of the visual ‘flaws’ of a virtual environment is that it is perfect, and remains perfect. A virtual building does not age with time. A virtual vase of flowers looks as fresh today as the day it was rendered.

While this might sound convenient, it isn’t life-like in a world created to imitate life. The non-changing status of virtual objects makes virtual worlds appear stilted and stiff.

Bitrot, as expressed in embedded algorithms, would allow rendered virtual objects to decay in specific, purposeful manners. Older buildings would look different than newer buildings; flowers could bud, bloom and wilt; and the environment in general would come alive with the ebb and flow of time. Bitrot, if successful, would represent a huge step forward in creating virtual realism.

Though we might have to wait for bitrot to hit virtual worlds, we can protect against the former type in the real world right now. If you use a memory stick to store important data, it might be a good idea to mirror it occasionally to other storage media, make sure the data is accessible, then copy it back to the stick. Re-set the clock, in a manner of speaking. For data stored on hard disks or floppies, follow the same basic rules and back up anything important. Bottom line, don’t let data sit so long that the mysteries of bitrot can set in.

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