We’re getting far too carried away with the word ‘rot’ these days—and not, alas, in the way Bertie Wooster would have used the term. (‘I mean to say, Jeeves, what bally rot!’).
We’re applying rot to all sorts of processes that do not involve actual rotting. Real rot is a process whereby organic materials (plants, trees, uneaten bean sprouts, small animals murdered by your cat) are broken down into much simpler forms, primarily through the action of bacteria, fungi and insects. Some internal chemical deterioration also occurs (e.g. in animal flesh, due to released enzymes) and warmth and humidity speed everything up. But in short, it’s all about microbes, baby.
Recently the vice-boss of Google spoke out about ‘bit rot’. Hurrah! Gobs of money will now be chucked at libraries, archives and other organisations grappling with the rising oceans of our digital heritage, right? Right…? Anyway, the unwary amongst us may therefore suppose that the innards of our computers are dissolving into puddles of fluorescent yellow slime in the manner of a neglected cucumber, but they would be mistaken. Mr Google was referring to the slow deterioration of software performance over time, due to changing operating environments—e.g. old software will run more slowly, be more buggy, or unable to be opened at all because the company that made it no longer updates it or quite possibly no longer exists. There is no rot here, only humankind's infallible failure to consider the long term.
‘Data rot’ refers to the gradual deterioration of digital storage media through a variety of processes—the dispersal of small electric charges within solid-state media, the loss of magnetic orientation in magnetic tape, or the chemical breakdown of the materials used to make optical disks—none of which involve any microbes whatsoever.
Then there is ‘red rot’, is a degradation process that occurs in leather. While leather can actually rot, this particular phenomenon is all down to acid deterioration. Do not blame the microbes, they are innocent! Various atmospheric pollutants and dodgy leather manufacturing processes are believed to be to blame. The acids break down the proteins, and the surface of the leather goes all weak and powdery and rubs off on everything nearby, especially your nice shirt. It’s quite unpleasant.
And then there are the diseases! Oh my, the diseases. ‘Bronze disease’ is not a disease—there are no bacteria or viruses or organisms anywhere—it’s just chloride corrosion of copper-based objects. (Though to be fair they did suspect the involvement of bacteria at first). And you will be shocked to learn that ‘concrete cancer’ does not involve the abnormal growth and replication of even a single cell, and is merely a term used to indicate the physical and chemical breakdown of concrete (surprise!), often due to the rusting and subsequent expansion of metal reinforcements.
I do understand, really—calling something ‘rot’ is just shorthand, a quick way to indicate that something is (in the immortal words of the Australian Financial Review) fukt. By using these verbal cheats we may save ourselves some time, but at the expense of truly understanding what is going on—within both the inanimate and the animate (ourselves). It limits our understanding of the problem and therefore our capacity to prevent or solve the problem. So don’t call it rot when it’s bally not.
ALICE CANNON, MELBOURNE