Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Dark Side of the digital age

Many of us take more photos on a long weekend than we did the entire time we used film cameras. Arguably the quality is improved based on immediate feedback and numerous retakes. We also avoid finding out when our film is developed - and our vacation is over - that an entire roll was poorly exposed due to unusual lighting conditions or an improper camera setting. All in all we feel like we've solved one of the world's greatest problems - documenting our lives for future generations. After all we repeatedly view, sort and arrange those precious pictures taken a century ago. We hang them on the wall and proudly point to great-uncle Eggbert as we relate our family's illustrious or not-so illustrious history. But there is a looming downside to the digital age and it affects much more than our photo libraries.

I'm often ask about the best way to store/archive photos and other files for the long term and I give the same simplistic answers as every other "expert" - make copies on CDs, store them off-site, etc., etc. But the very serious problem of long term storage of files of all types was discussed recently in Computerworld and here is a hint of the problem.

The Domesday book - a detailed property ownership survey in England commissioned by William the Conqueror - was published in 1086. It was recorded on sheepskin and written in Latin. In 1986 an updated version was prepared using the latest technology - laser discs. Guess which one was readable fifteen years later - assuming you or a friend could read Latin. That's right, the 935 year old book could be read but the "modern version" could not because the laser disc players and software were obsolete. Reading the 1986 version required significant custom hardware and software engineering.

Reading at least part of the the article by Lamont Wood is informative. Organizations with substantial concerns include the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the U.S. Geological Survey and you can forget about gigabytes; they talk in terabytes and petabytes (one thousand and one million gigabytes respectively.) The problem is reminiscent of the Year 2000 Problem but this one will not be over in five years. Digital data has the potential to last literally forever - it's all just collections of zeros and ones - providing archiving strategies are developed to store those quadrillions (petabytes) of bits.


  1. Really great piece here. I remember reading about this in Omni around 20 or so years ago. They touched on exactly the same problem and noted how in the future the current technology would be so obsolete that attempting to build comprehensive electronic libraries would be a never ending process. Not because of the difficulty in collecting and storing in the data, but because the entire thing would have to be updated every decade or so just to keep it accessible.

    Another phenomena I haven't read about lately is the tendency to lose data in a file each time it is recopied. The idea behind that was that eventually the data would degrade beyond the quality of the original as affected by time.

  2. Paul - thanks for the note. I suppose there are really no new problems - but hopefully some new answers soon.

    Regarding the loss of data resulting from copying - I don't see that as a problem in the digital age. Digital copies should be exact, if the original media is readable - it's just a big long string of zeros and ones anyway. Maybe I'm missing something.