Wednesday, February 06, 2013

New Electronic Media: Here today, gone tomorrow...forever.

There are books that are older than the United States. We're all going to die one day, and all of us hope that something we leave behind will somehow endure. It's been a reality for centuries that this has in fact been achieved through reasonably reliable forms of information storage for thousands of years. While most of what was written on on stone, on wet clay tablets and parchment throughout human history has been lost, we're still finding what we've forgotten collectively, as a species.

Forgetting and remembering is practically central to the human condition. We're always in a state of amnesia, wondering, attempting to penetrate the great mystery, ourselves.

Because we're mortal, we forget. This is what worries me a little about the new electronic media and how poorly it archives. With one entirely new system and code after another being introduced onto the consumer market, only data migration is going to preserve a lot of it. (On the other hand, we might find one bright spot in the NSA's fusion centers--they'll preserve everything currently on the Internet.)

Any movie shot on HD video will have to be transferred to another code eventually, and so on. It's inevitable that some data will be lost along the way. A low-tech nitrate print can last a century, if properly stored. At least a decade ago, there were articles about how a digitized version of the Domesday book (a log of taxable lands commissioned by William the Conqueror in the 11th century) couldn't be accessed by scholars in the UK because the language of the files was obsolete. Without the process of data migration done at a specific stage, you cannot access the information. A hard copy book doesn't crash. A 78 RPM record doesn't crash. A CD doesn't crash, albeit that it's prone to a similar obsolescence. Now we've learned how to encode DNA with information. That might actually be a good route for archiving, at least so long as you can preserve its substance, perhaps keeping it in a biologically immortal medium.

But, have we finally begun to admit with our embracing of the new media that all of this is ephemeral, and that we're not leaving a legacy worth rediscovering behind? Has it come down to this?