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Why No One Will Remember this Age

One of the issues that keeps nagging at me is being remembered. Specifically, how to keep or store information so that a generation or two from now it can still be reviewed, worked with and improved upon.

As a digital librarian, this is of of my core duties, and a job that I take very seriously. But at the end of the day, there is a big problem.

Were you one of those people who remembers Lotus notes, Word Perfect or even Color Studio? You probably have thought to yourself, do I get that file back that I worked on? I have even see issues with fonts and how older versions of programs display on screen after a few years of upgrades renders them fairly unreliable. There are few programs who's native formats conform to any type of standards. For that matter, programming languages have changed massively over the years and there are fewer and fewer people who can still code in Fortran or Cobalt, much less Pascal or even Basic. One can imagine that it won't be long that people will be programming computers at all as Artificial Inelligence takes over the whole programming industry within the next 3 to 5 generations.

I have had to migrate my data many times over the years from media type to media type as well. First if was large tape reels, then floppy discs, Syquest dives, Zip drives, Optical discs, DAT tapes, DLT tape and now portable hard drives and burnable DVDs. It seems like the cloud could remove some of this, but I am always concerned about the company going out of business or my data being hacked and corrupted by a seriously misled hacker. And who knows if the cloud will be replaced by some new way of keeping your data, which, if your a betting person; its a very safe bet it will be. Will I have to move terabytes of my data around again? And in the end, when I finally die, will anyone care to get to my data or to go through it all and keep my passwords so that the information can be shared from generation to generation?

Well, you might be saying, "Write it down." Yep, I could do that, but many kids can no longer read cursive. It's like a foreign language to them! Well, then type it out and print it! Ya, I have done that in some cases, but this is time consuming and difficult to keep in a safe and in an accessible place. And the honest truth with the new generation is that, "If I can't find it online, then what's the point of even keeping it?" Its a huge problem that traditional Libraries and Universities are struggling with now.

Discarded Computer Equipment

Believe it or not, this time is becoming very dark to historians. Hundreds and thousands of file formats are becoming obsolete. Data from them cannot be read and no one is bothering to keep it in an archive that can be searched or even read back in 100 to 200 years from now. I was stuck recently by the amount of video tape decks (the professional type) that my company threw out because no one uses them or cares to use them at all anymore as the new workflows are all digital and the old tapes are deemed obsolete, outdated or irrelevant information. Many of the clients, that the work was done with, have moved on to other vendors so no one wants to spend any money on going through the countless hours of tapes to decide what might be historically relevant. So the tapes are all boxed up with a paper index and sent to a warehouse. Who will be able to read them back in once all the decks are broken and no longer even available?

Row of Tape Banks

For that matter, most of the tape archives are suffering through the exact same crisis. Millions of terabytes of data and no one will spend the time or money to migrate it to the cloud or keep the drives working to read it back in when it might be important to find out what was done.

The business world is largely letting its own history die. Did you already forget that the last VCR has been manufactured?

Good luck getting those home movies seen by your grandchildren.

You might be thinking that I'm a bit anti-digital. That could not be farther from the truth. I have embraced the digital world and the power it has. I have seen great strides forward in technology in my life and I have benefited from it. I have been an adopter and evangelist. What I don't like is the average person and the average businesses ability to keep its records in a standard and sustainable way. Most Companies don't even have a policy on its own records or how it handles client information for safe and sustainable digital retrieval. What I have learned is that digital workflows and new software are very often embraced, but digital archiving and records keeping are not. At least, not with any long term thinking.

Did you ever stop to think about the lifespans of all this data and the media that it lives on? The CDs and DVDs that you have burned will not last for ever. Even if you burned them in a cross-platform safe way (data DVD/CD) it won't matter 20 to 25 years from now, as cosmic rays and the breakdown of the enamels that record the data will destroy them. If you want to keep it on optical media, you will have to re-burn them from time to time. Same with most magnetic strip information. Even your cassette tapes that you might have made in college don't sound as good as they did when you recorded them because of cross contamination of the magnetic data and background radiation that degrades them.

Fifty to Sixty years from now, it will be virtually impossible to get records from any/all tape media and optical media, and that's assuming that you have a computer system that will even understand the information or a device that reads it properly. Consumer based media is simply not designed to be long term storage.

Let not forget about the constant stream of new ways to interface with those external devices too! I remember parallel ports, SCSI ports (multiple sizes and data speeds), PCI ports, Firewire (different kinds), and the ever popular USB ports that many of us use today (A, B and C types). Also lightening ports and who knows what else I forgot.

So, 100 years from now I find a sort of a drive from the early 2000's, I might not know what kind of device it is, how it works or what the media looks like. I probably will know that this time had all kinds of devices and ways to store things, but that all of it is probably unreadable any more, and there were few, to no standard ways of storing the information. The programs are not available and I would have to query the global database to see when it was created and most likely it will not have any idea of the manufacturer, interface type or operating system that was used to write the data onto the media.

So what I am saying is that most of the data of this age is going to go dark, unless we figure out a way to keep it from disappearing.

The government's not going to help, its going to be up to us a individuals to keep our lives and the things we consider important from being erased, degrading and turning to dust.

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