Katherine, you’ve emphasized something that’s really a very serious problem. As civilization has evolved it’s become apparent that most of the ways that have been devised to store information have become less permanent as the density of information storage has increased and ways have been devised to make that information more widely available.
Records inscribed in stone, or in clay that is then baked, have survived for thousands of years. But even when the physical form of records is persistent over time, languages change and the meanings of inscribed symbols can be lost.
The development of writing on papyrus, animal skins, tree bark, cloth and paper made it possible to increase the density of information storage and decrease the cost of transmission of information. A few such records have survived for thousands of years. But most of the original records have been lost by accident and decay, and much of what has survived has been through generations of copying and recopying the originals, with consequent accumulation of clerical errors made by scribes.
I’ve got a parchment page from a 13th century Bible, beautifully penned and illustrated by a monk who was using the best technology of his time to transmit that data to others. That page is in pristine condition. I’ve also got a page from Samuel Johnson’s original dictionary of the English language. I bought those items at a museum sale back in 1954. Why were they for sale? Because only a few pages of the original book of which each was a part had survived; the original books were not restorable. The proceeds of the sale of those pages went to finance efforts to preserve and restore books, so that some could survive longer.
Paper is much cheaper than parchment made from animal skins. In the past, paper was much longer lasting (and more expensive) than most of the paper we use today, as it was made from linen fiber. I’ve got some books printed in the 18th century and the paper has survived well. But as demand for information increased cheaper paper technology was developed, and paper was produced from wood pulp. I’ve got books much more recent than those 18th century ones, with the paper literally crumbling. Librarians are warning that we are in danger of losing much of the written material from the 19th and 20th centuries for that reason. Large sums of money are being spent on preservation efforts, including digitizing such data before it becomes unreadable. (Early on, microfilming was viewed as a preservation method; now those old microfilms are crumbling, too.)
And so to digital data. I first became involved with digital information as project director of a university center to transfer environmental science and technology information resulting from federally funded research, back in the late 1960s. We received magnetic tapes that could be searched. Input for searches was done by punched cards. Output was printed on paper as a list of numbers corresponding to potentially relevant numbered literature abstracts, which were in paper form. I won’t go into how primitive and labor-intensive that system was, but for its time it was regarded as a technical marvel.
What about those old magnetic tapes, which were the primary vehicle for storing and distributing computerized information then? Many of them still exist, but are unreadable now, for two reasons. 1) Not only has time made the physical matrix of the tape unreliable, but the magnetic particles that stored the data have weakened so that read errors increase over time; 2) even if the tapes were still pristine, it would be difficult to find an existing read system that could interpret the data. Computer technology has evolved and the old equipment has been obsolete for decades.
I bought an Apple II+ with 64KB RAM and two floppy drives back in 1980. It came with several programs on cassette tapes, as well. I’ve still got a computer capable of reading those 140 KB floppy disks, although I haven’t fired it up for years. Those old floppies were pretty unreliable, although to my astonishment most of them were still readable about 5 or 6 years ago. But there’s a wall between the information stored on those old disks and my present-day Macs. My Macs can’t read the information on those old floppies. Yes, it’s technically possible (there are hobbyists who do this), but so involved that I’ve never gotten around to it. As a practical matter, my main access to that old information is through surviving paper printouts made at the time.
Then I moved to Macs with the “Classic” OS. I’ve got a lot of historical information created then that’s not accessible by my current Macs. My bridge to that information is through a couple of older Macs kept for that purpose. It’s a bit easier to transfer information from them to my OS X Macs, but still a chore. So there’s a wall between my past data and the data systems I use nowadays. And much of that Mac OS data is on floppy disks and Iomega disks, storage media that become unreliable over time.
Today, I rely on hard drives for primary storage of data, and keep some DVDs of important backups at an offsite location. I’ve got almost 2 terabytes of hard drive storage available. I’m managing more than 150,000 documents among a number of DT Pro databases.
Katherine’s point is really important. I’m on my fourth generation of computer use, from the old university CDC 6600 mainframe, to the Apple II+, to Mac OS and now Mac OS X. The further back in time, the less accessible that digitized information becomes to me in the present. That time frame is only over a few decades. How readable to someone else will my information collections be a few decades in the future?
One of the things I like about DEVONthink is that I can export everything to the Finder. But even then, most of the computers in the world today can’t read that information from my Macs. By 2050 I suspect that mechanical hard drives will be hobbyist curiosities and my DVD backup discs may have become unreliable, even if one possessed the equipment and software to read them and my hard drives.
The beauty of digitized information is that an enormous amount of information can be stored in a small “space” and can be copied over and over with far fewer errors of transcription than were made by scribes in the past, and at almost no cost. But that doesn’t mean that all digital information can be read by all digital devices – far from it. As a practical matter, the rapid evolution of computer technology and software has also meant the rapid obsolescence of previous digital storage and management technologies, as well as a Tower of Babel resulting from incompatible hardware and software technologies.
I’ve visited Egyptian temples thousands of years old, in which the accounts of gods and pharaohs are still visible as hieroglyphs inscribed in stone. How much information of today will still survive and be readable thousands of years into the future? As optimistic as I am, the answer could be that we will pass on less information than did the Egyptians.