Monday, November 14, 2016

The (information) machine stops

The (information) machine stops. Gary McGath. Mad File Format Science Blog. March 14, 2016.
     The “Digital Dark Age” discussion comes up again.  Instead of asking what could trigger a Digital Dark Age, we ought to ask
  1. what conditions are necessary and sufficient for the really long-term preservation of information,
  2. what will minimize the risk of widespread loss of today’s history, literature, and news?
Our storage ability has increased but the durability of that storage has decreased. We deal with obsolescence and format, file, and device failures. "Anything we put on a disk today will almost certainly be unusable by 2050. The year 3016 just seems unimaginably far. Yet we still have records today from 1016, 16, and even 984 B.C.E. How can our records of today last a thousand years?"

The current practices rely on curation, migration, and hoping that storage providers will be around forever. Or that some institutions will take up the task of preservation and continue it forever. This requires "an unbroken chain of human activity to keep information alive". History shows that information is often neglected or destroyed, and in reality, only a tiny fraction has survived. "Today’s leading forms of digital storage simply can’t survive that degree of neglect." Abby Smith Rumsey writes, "The new paradigm of memory is more like growing a garden. Everything that we entrust to digital code needs regular tending, refreshing, and periodic migration to make sure that it is still alive, whether we intend to use it in a year, a hundred years, or maybe never." It is not a safe assumption that "things will always be the way they are today, maybe with some gradual improvement or decline, but nothing that will seriously disrupt the way we and future generations live."

However, we have to remember that people and information have survived many types of catastrophes. The original question in the post was "If an uninterrupted succession of custodians isn’t the best way to keep history alive, what is? The answer must be something that’s resilient in the face of interruptions." An important part of this is to avoid reliance on fragile protection; the keys are durability and decentralization. "The hard parts are avoiding physical degradation, hardware obsolescence, and format obsolescence. Physical durability isn’t out of reach. Devices like the M-disc have impressive durability."

"The way to address obsolescence is with designs simple enough that they can be reconstructed." We need decentralized archives in many places with different approaches. "The problem is solvable. The mistake is thinking that an indefinite chain of short-term solutions can add up to a long-term solution."

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