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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

Make Good Choices …

In order to make sure digital data can be understood in the future, ideally we should choose representations for our data for which compatible hardware and software are likely to survive as well. Like species in nature, digital formats that are able to adapt to new environments and threats will tend to survive. Nature cannot predict the future, but the mechanism of mutation creates different species with different traits, and the fittest prevail.

Because we also can’t predict the future to know the best data-representation choices, we try to do as nature does. We can copy our digital data into as many different media, formats and encodings as possible and hope that some survive.

Another way to make good choices is to simply follow the pack. A famous example comes from the 1970s, when two competing standards for home video recording existed: Betamax and VHS. Although Betamax, by many technical measures, was a superior standard and was introduced first, the companies supporting VHS had better business and marketing strategies and eventually won the standards war. Betamax mostly fell into disuse by the late 1980s; VHS survived until the mid-2000s. Thus if a format or media standard is in more common use, it may be a better choice than one that is rare.

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