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Avoiding a Digital Dark Age

Data longevity depends on both the storage medium and the ability to decipher the information

Kurt D. Bollacker

Being Practical

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out highly important items and store them safely—there seems to be no getting away from occasionally reverting to this “outdated” media type.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.

2010-03CompSciBollackerFF.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIf 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.


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