Data Storage is Only Temporary


by Tim Moran

In 1977, when I first began working as an editor in the business-technology publishing industry, getting the written word to the printed page had nothing to do with digital technology.

The process was simple, if not necessarily easy or quick. Write on an electric typewriter, with carbon copy paper; edit with pen/pencil; send to the typesetters -- real people sitting at Linotype machines who, using melted pig iron [ED. NOTE: Commenters say this was lead, not pig iron], turned keystrokes into "lines of type" that were set in galleys. Wikipedia has some very nice entries on hot metal typesetting and early printing in general.

While not Gutenberg old, this process was closer to Germany almost 600 years ago than it is to anything we do today. Today's Office, where I worked as managing editor, was a seminal publication for the biz-tech industry that can only be accessed digitally today via a link to purchase a hard copy; as the seller says: "Read and Relive the Past with a Back Issue Magazines."

Which brings us to a terrific article published by American Scientist, Avoiding a Digital Dark Age. The blurb for Kurt D. Bollacker's article says that "data longevity depends on both the storage medium and the ability to decipher the information."

It all started for Bollacker back in the '80s when he tried to restore a backup of his PC from some 5-1/4" floppies:

Although all of the data on them may have survived, my disks were useless because of the proprietary encoding scheme used by my backup program. The Dead Sea scrolls, made out of still-readable parchment and papyrus, are believed to have been created more than 2,000 years ago. Yet my barely 10-year-old digital floppy disks were essentially lost. I was furious! How had the shiny new world of digital data, which I had been taught was so superior to the old 'analog' world, failed me? I wondered: Had I had simply misplaced my faith, or was I missing something?
Bollacker's onto something real. We go around snapping digital pix with our phones and sending emails with our Blackberrys--and not a piece of paper or anything else to record what was photographed or what was written.


Many (most?) of us have given up writing messages on paper, instead adopting electronic formats, and have exchanged film-based photographic cameras for digital ones. Will those precious family photographs and letters--that is, email messages--created today survive for future generations, or will they suffer a sad fate like my backup floppy disks? It seems unavoidable that most of the data in our future will be digital, so it behooves us to understand how to manage and preserve digital data so we can avoid what some have called the "digital dark age."
This fascinating, multipage article is worth a read--and, if you're smart, you might even print it out.

See also: Vint Cerf on the bit-rot problem.