Considerations regarding the
OBSOLESCENCE of Archival Media
by Lee Frank

      Are you one of the few willing to admit they once bought eight-track tapes? If not, are you old enough to have the same album on LP, then cassettes, then CDs—and now you're looking at MP3? If so, you understand the transitory nature of storing data on "current" technology. For those of us who've owned personal computers for over twenty years, the continual re-archiving of our data is a growing problem.

      The lifetime of engraved stone, though finite, has yet to be determined. A substantial percentage of Egyptian hieroglyphics are still readable thousands of years after their creation. Yet the data I placed on five and a quarter inch floppy disks some twenty years ago is almost entirely beyond my reach. (Completely gone are the punched card decks, and the large reels from the giant computer tape machines.)

      In truth, a larger percentage of my computer data is less available than the music placed on seventy-eight rpm shellac recordings. Even Edison cylinders, well over a hundred years old, are more accessible than those five and a quarter inch floppy disks. And we still buy and sell long-playing (thirty-three and a third rpm) recordings, a technology over fifty years old. (How many people recall that talking books, now ubiquitous on cassette, once existed on records at sixteen and two-thirds rpm?)

      Which leaves us where? For one thing, we no longer have monks hand-copying manuscripts. Now, the problems of replicating information in analog media have been replaced by the more rapid obsolescence of digital media. Note this transformation did not begin with the computer. Print, movies, sound and video recordings all preceded digital, and all are pretty good replicators, certainly far better than hand replication. But while they are faster and more accurate replicators than monks, their longevity soon came into question. Books lose pages, sound and video blurs after several generations, and we're being continually asked for donations to restore old films.

      These media, while not digital, were mechanical, a mechanical replication that kept improving because machines kept improving. Eventually, machines found their ultimate expression—the computer as digital machine. Computers dominate information because they improve themselves (evolve, if you will) faster than any previous information technology.

      This begs the larger question for the new millennium: Whether binary is inherently better than biological? However, the more relevant question for this topic is, will digital replace analog. Maybe. Can you say it won't? (That's the real power of the digital world—you can't say what its limitations are.) At the rate at which this power (in both speed and memory) is increasing, it's hard to say what could never be done. Of course, there are always economic constraints limiting the power when it first appears, but eventually those limitations disappear.

      The prime advantage of digital over analog is that no information is lost in replication. This may be true, but at the bottom, all information is analog. Ones and zeroes are represented by differences in the physical world—directions of electrical currents, pits in plastic, varying voltage levels, and polarized magnetic media. There is no such thing as purely digital information.

      Therefore, we are completely dependent upon physical devices to read analog media, even when the information stored there is digital. The devices we used in the recent past to read our archived information are rapidly becoming obsolete, as shown above. But are we really standing on shifting sands? Not when we place our data on the Web, not when we give over the problem of the constant progression of storage devices to host computers. It is no longer your personal problem when the universal Internet is continually upgrading archival media in a manner invisible to you. Or is it?

      While you no longer have to deal with saving your information on changing archival media (unless you care about backups), you still have the problem of accessing it from the Web's archives. Perhaps you hadn't noticed how much browsers have mutated in less than ten years. So far, most new versions have maintained a fair degree of backward compatibility. Today, an older browser can give you the feeling of looking at a three-dimensional world of color in two-dimensional black and white.

      At this stage, the problem of obsolescent archival hardware is replaced by the obsolescence of software—and your software is limited by how up-to-date your hardware is. Or someone else's hardware and software, if you've become digitally immortal. Here is the obvious question: Even though the Web is a better interment site than your old Apple, how will those responsible for your digital immortality keep pace with the advance of technology?

      Further, we can't assume digital immortality will be confined to the Web—for example, digital ink. In addition, while mirror sites are common on the Web, we can't assume some other digital technology won't arise as mirror locations. The digital future may replicate accurately, but it is far more vague than older analog futures.

      The goal of digital immorality is not perfection, nor a platonic ideal, but some degree of practical immortality. Tombstones may seem less risky, but they preserve much less of you than evolving digital storage.


  Origins of Digital-Immortality Index
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leefrank@digital-immortality.org

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Last updated 3/11/02

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