Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Paradox of Digital Data Eternity

Man has dreamed of eternally preserving data for, well, forever. The ancient Egyptians thought they had done a pretty good job of doing that by drawing on the walls of tombs buried in the desert. Until everybody forgot how to read hieroglyphics. Thank goodness for that Rosetta Stone thing.

The Romans assumed that their empire and their language would exist forever. Their language is kept alive in state mottos, but not much else.

In the twentieth century, we invented methods of converting all data into digital formats. And that, we thought, solved the problem. Not only could we preserve data for all eternity, we could effortlessly and precisely transmit that data instantly over virtually unlimited distances. And we could replicate that data over and over and over again with absolutely no loss in quality from the original to the ten millionth copy with a precision that those 12th century monks would surely be envious of.

Alas, it didn’t occur to us that the very technology that would make that possible would soon be replaced by — better  technology. Sheesh. Who woulda thunk that?

You have seen this problem if you have ever tried to recover that résumé that you “preserved” five years ago on a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Heck, most the computers today don’t even have a slot to plug that thing in any more. I worked for a company that had shelves of data sitting on eight-inch floppies. That was back when floppies actually flopped. That data might as well be sitting at the bottom of the ocean today.

The Census Department discovered the problem in the 1980s when they realized they could not read data from the 1960 census. It all existed on magnetic tapes that could only be read by tape drives that didn’t even exist any more. They spent $10 million dollars figuring out a solution to fix the problem.

nasa had a slightly different problem. It had acres of data from the early lunar explorations that it could read, but it couldn’t make any sense out of it. The documentation and original file structures had been lost and the men who worked on those projects had mostly retired. They had to pull a bunch of their old engineers off the golf courses to come in and make sense of the mess.

Since technology outpaces technology at an ever-alarming rate, this is not a problem that’s going to go away soon. The irony is that we can’t read data that we wrote half a decade ago, but 500-year-old books are just as legible today as when Mr. Gutenberg first moved the type for them.

The best advice is if you really want to preserve something forever, write it down.

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