Avoiding a Digital Dark Age
Data longevity depends on both the storage medium and the ability to decipher the information
Given all of this varied advice, what can we do to save our personal digital data? First and foremost, make regular backup copies onto easily copied media (such as hard drives) and place these copies in different locations. Try reading documents, photos and other media whenever upgrading software or hardware, and convert them to new formats as needed. Lastly, if possible, print out highly important items and store them safely—there seems to be no getting away from occasionally reverting to this “outdated” media type. None of these steps will guarantee the data’s survival, but not taking them almost guarantees that the data will be lost, sooner or later. This process does seem to involve a lot more effort than my grandparents went to when shoving photos into a shoebox in the attic decades ago, but perhaps this is one of the costs for the miracles of our digital age.
If all this seems like too much work, there is one last possibility. We could revert our digital data back to an analog form and use traditional media-preservation techniques. An extreme example of this is demonstrated by the Rosetta Project, a scholarly endeavor to preserve parallel texts of all of the world’s written languages. The project has created a metal disk (right) on which miniaturized versions of more than 13,000 pages of text and images have been etched using techniques similar to computer-chip lithography. It is expected that this disk could last up to 2,000 years because, physically, the disk has more in common with a stone tablet than a modern hard drive. Although this approach should work for some important data, it is much more expensive to use in the short term than almost any practical digital solution and is less capable in some cases (for example, it’s not good for audio or video). Perhaps it is better thought of as a cautionary example of what our future might look like if we are not able to make the digital world in which we find ourselves remain successful over time.
- Balistier, Thomas. 2000. The Phaistos Disc: An Account of Its Unsolved Mystery. New York: Springer-Verlag.
- Besen, Stanley M., and Joseph Farrell. 1994. Choosing how to compete: Strategies and tactics in standardization. Journal of Economic Perspectives 8:117–131.
- Camras, Marvin. 1988. Magnetic Recording Handbook. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.
- The IBM 709 Data-Processing System. http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/mainframe/mainframe_PP709.html
- Koops, Matthias. 1800. Historical Account of the Substances Which Have Been Used to Describe Events, and to Convey Ideas, from the Earliest Date, to the Invention of Paper. London: T. Burton.
- Pohlmann, Ken C. 1985. Principles of Digital Audio, 2nd ed. Carmel, Indiana: Sams/Prentice-Hall Computer Publishing.
- The Rosetta Project. http://www.rosettaproject.org
- United States Postal Service, Domestic Mail Manual 708.4—Special Standards, Technical Specifications, Barcoding Standards for Letters and Flats.
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