Kevin Kelly’s Movage

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

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8 Responses to Kevin Kelly’s Movage

  1. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    This is what makes plaintext such a good format (as you have been posting on recently). Hopefully in a hundred years MSWord will be long dead, but so long as the medium itself isn’t decayed then LaTeX documents will still be perfectly readable, even if there’s no such thing as a LaTeX compiler anymore.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    In a hundred year, yes. In a thousand years – not necessarily. The future civilizations will need to be able to figure out the ASCII table to read plain text. Or unicode… And the correct encoding.

    Sigh… Let’s face it – plain text is a mess as well. So are numbers. Will the people of the future know that negative numbers look like really large positive numbers in binary? Or know how to read the Floating point notation in one of it’s many formats?

    I think we need to start carving these things in stone like Egyptians did. :P

    But yeah, you are right. Plain text has the best chances of survival in the long term. On the other hand though, I believe that the dreaded .doc format will actually outlive Microsoft thanks to projects such as Open Office, Star Office and etc…

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  3. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux Terminalist says:

    Carving in stone isn’t any better: do you really understand the symbols they use?
    What we know about them is based on “dictionaries” of symbols that translated it to greek (The Rosetta Stone was the first, AFAIK), so it’s not really any better than ASCII.
    But as long as you need to keep moving from physical format to another, re-encoding it shouldn’t be much hard.

    In terms of physical formats, why don’t we print bytes in paper? Printing a really small dot for each bit (if we use colors, we could even compress it further) would be very easy to read :P

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  4. Milos UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Everything is duplicated, replicated, re-posted, copied, backed up…all the time (except when a faculty of mine loses his/her dissertation which can’t be found anywhere) :( It is important for each of us to be responsible for our own data preservation and that approach will hopefully propagate across digital mediums we all use. And when all else fails, I’m sure that Google will back it up. ;)

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @IceBrain: True, true. I was watching this fascinating documentary one day about building storage vaults for nuclear waste. This stuff has a half-life that is measured in centuries so it is likely to still be deadly long after our culture is forgotten. The problem is – how do we warn the people of the future not to open these crates.

    You’d think skull and crossbones, but that’s hardly universal. Skulls do not always symbolize death in all cultures. Also, slapping warning signs all over the place may actually attract archeologists and make them thing there is something important buried there. It is an interesting problem.

    That said, you are right. As long as we keep it moving the data will get converted from one popular format to the other.

    @Milos: Heh! I know this pain. If I had a penny for every time someone at my company “lost 6 hours of word” because they forgot to save and they accidentally closed Word/Excel window and thoughtlessly hit NO when it prompted them to save the document I would be able to retire by now. :)

    Actually Google is but one cloud on the network. You could theoretically treat the whole internet as a super-cloud. If you post something on the internet, and it’s good (or funny, or embarrassing) you don’t need to worry about backing it up. It will be copied, moved, replicated, mirrored and re-posted until it ceases to be useful or loses cultural relevance.

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  6. ths UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    reminds me of “blade runner” …

    Batty: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.

    well ok, not the last line, but the “lost in time” stuff ;). makes me shiver every time still.

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  7. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @ths

    Of course now you open the debate of how our “data” is used to augment our memories and our view of reality. Much like Rachel’s spiders in Blade Runner. If our reference to history is copied and converted, what does it mean for our concept of reality?

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  8. Ajzimm3rman UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Thanks for bringing this up. Very well put, I thought this was interesting.

    There’s definitely something missing-when digitizing original products or keeping them there.
    It’s very interesting…

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