I have quoted Kevin Kelly many times in the past. You should definitely check out his blog, as he is full of profound little insights about the future of technology. In one of his recent posts he brought up an interesting subject – the short lifespan of digital media. I’m sure you were aware of this, but paper is actually much more resilient and long lasting medium than any of the digital formats we have now.
Digital continuity is a real problem. Digital information is very easy to copy within short periods of time, but very difficult to copy over long periods of time. That is, it is very easy to make lots of copies now, but very difficult to get the data to copy over a century. For two reasons:
- Formats change. Because of rapid technological evolution the “language” which one storage media speaks can become obsolete (incomprehensible) in only a few years. Or the hardware that speaks that language becomes so rare, it cannot be accessed. Who can read the data on ten-year old floppy disks?
- The storage medium itself can decay. Turns out that paper is much more stable over the long term than most digital media. Magnetic surfaces flake, peel, shatter. And the supposed durable CDs and DVDs aren’t very stable either.
I sometimes wonder what will archeologists of the far future think about our culture and society. They will find these magnificent cities, road systems and infrastructure we have left behind, but precious little of our culture. We know so much about ancient Egyptians because their primary data storage medium was stone, and clay tablets. Since these materials last virtually forever, a lot of of their writing survived to our times. Where do we store our data?
Some of it is on paper, the rest is on magnetic or digital media. While some of our paper records may survive just like the dead sea scrolls did, most will wither away. Our digital data will be lost. Even if the media themselves survive, future civilizations probably won’t be able to figure out how to read them without proper context and documentation. Perhaps the scholars from the far future will refer to the 21’st century as the cultural dark age or something like that.
Kevin Kelly has a solution though – at least a short term one:
The only way to archive digital information is to keep it moving. I call this movage instead of storage. Proper movage means transferring the material to current platforms on a regular basis — that is, before the old platform completely dies, and it becomes hard to do. This movic rythym of refreshing content should be as smooth as a respiratory cycle — in, out, in, out. Copy, move, copy, move.
In other words, anything you want moved to the future has to be given attention to keep it moving forward.
This is obviously a good strategy. In fact we have been using it for a while now, with a great degree of success. Here is the thing: we no longer put anything “in storage” the way we used to. Physical data worked differently, and required different storage strategies. For one, it took space. There is a limited number of filing cabinets/shelves you can have in your office/library. Once you fill them all up, you will need to box up some of the old data and move it into permanent storage. This usually meant physically carrying crates of paper into some windowless basement hopefully with a controlled temperature and humidity.
Digital data, takes much less physical space, and does not need to be stored where you are for easy access. You ran out of storage space? No problem, just mount another server on the rack in your data. No space in the data center? Find another one – it doesn’t even need to be in the same city, or state as you.
We no longer need to archive data. Perhaps for the first time in the history of mankind, we have the technology that allows us to have ALL of human knowledge accessible from anywhere, at any time. The trend is to do the opposite of archiving – we tend to pull out old documents from our little basements and digitize them. Old, archival data is being actively returned into live circulation every day. We don’t want to have anything in the basement storage. We want everything digitized, and on the cloud.
If it’s on the cloud it is redundant. Individual servers have RAID drives, data replication and robust backup strategies. Backups need to be done frequently, and verified/tested as often as possible. So “movage” is being implemented here and now, in the form of best practices of data storage. If you keep it redundant, and back it up often you are moving it forward.