Catastrophic Failure, as Wikipedia explains it:
A catastrophic failure is a sudden and total failure from which recovery is impossible. Catastrophic failures often lead to cascading systems failure.
Where the term "Cascading systems failure" means:
A cascading failure is a process in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of one or few parts can trigger the failure of other parts and so on.
Well, as of now there is no "official" Documentation explaining Catastrophic failures related to Media devices or even Catastrophic failures in general. This is probably because, Catastrophic failures can't be explained. The reason why I say this is, as said by the OP himself:
...I've come to expect detailed error messages in Windows with lots of technical jargon and composed carefully chosen words...
This indicates that windows itself might not have enough useful information on what exactly happened.
So in general "Catastrophic Failures" seem to have three properties in common:
- Irrecoverable error,
- Error followed by more errors
- No or little information.
Since Catastrophic Failures in Windows may have wider meanings, I'm only adressing Catastrophic Failures while transferring data from a media device like mobile phones and cameras hereforth.
During a USB transfer from another device, windows requests a file from the device, in return, the device responds with the file (That is, during an unexeptional transfer). To read more: https://qr.ae/pG0xzY (C'mon that is a nice article even if it is from Quora...)
However, if under certain conditions, the device is unable to read the file from its storage, then it would return windows an Error. Windows wouldn't have any idea what happened, and instead the transfer process would itself end spewing an error:
The reason how the above paragraph is not just a theory is as follows, try this: Start a transfer over a USB. Now delete that file from your device. Windows will return you a Catastrophic failure. Also, Considering that the three OPs above who said they encountered
Catastrophic failure might be facing a momentary read error on their devices, the above theory explains all the scenarios.