Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The ephemerality of digital information

Don't ever think that all of your precious digital documents, pictures, music and movies are safe, no matter what format it is in. Over the long run, file formats become obsolete, programs become obsolete, digital media crashes or degrades, the hardware that runs it becomes obsolete or breaks. In the most extreme case civilization loses its capability to access the data (see for example the Dark Age).

Jeffrey Rowland has become painfully aware of how much of our information is digital and even spoofs a world where everyone reads active media on computers and don't understand books anymore (completely like our own.) His illiterate princess is illiterate because she is used only to viewing bad web pages and having blog comment flame wars. She is completely unfamiliar with books. Jeffrey has a plan for preserving his important information. His advice -
"That's why I use lasers to write all my important information (imbedded in the code of Metallica mp3s) on diamonds, and put the diamonds in a steel-reinforced, titanium case with an electromagnetic seal. Each day I hide the Case deep within a mountain in the Middle East, and I employ a small cadre of Knights to stand guard in the Master Chamber. The Knights realize it is their solemn duty to guard the Case, and require only sandwiches for their work. They have also agreed to pass on the responsibility to their descendants for as many generations as possible. In the event of the Knights' extinction, with his final breath, the last remaining Knight is instructed to activate a failsafe device which consists a series of tests and booby-traps that will ensure the only living creature that can gain access to my recipes, receipts, and sketches will be a being of absolute, benevolent purity."
This is not a spurious recommendation. How will you read your digital files years from now? How will a future civilization read the data of our times? Talk of the Nation covered this topic as long ago as 2001, the program mentioned the Rosetta Project. The Rosetta Project has over 100,000 pages in over 2,500 languages in microscopic format etched onto a 3 inch nickel disk, just magnify to recover the texts. The disk is a project of the Long Now Foundation and is intended to last thousands of years.

The Library of Congress started a program in 2003 to preserve historical audio by transferring digital recordings from CD's and MP3's to 78 rpm phonograph discs. Please note that this is the opposite direction of everyone else's analog to digital conversion. Even the Library of Congress thinks that phonograph records the only long term stable recording format. Phonograph recording was invented more than a hundred years ago, but if the plans are provided, could be replicated by an even more rudimentary civilization.

Some suggest copying your digital picture files to film because "“Well maintained traditional film material is known to last for at least a century or two and reproduction is easy." This may be a bit of an overstatement but is an interesting indictment of the ephemerality of digital media.

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1 comment:

jeffrey rowland said...

I saw your write up about my story because of technorati! I'm glad you got it, a lot of people didn't.