Saturday, November 22, 2014

Digital Dark Age

With apologies to St. Benedict
I've often had the thought that in the distant future, archaeologists who investigate our civilization will be perplexed by the "fact" that at the very height of our civilization, the human race simply decided to do away with writing. As everything gets moved to impermanent media, should our civilization fall into ruin (or simply evolve into something quite different) it will appear to future historians as though writing itself became relegated to ceremonial use only, labeling public buildings and tombstones. Now that someone has invented the digital tombstone, even that use may disappear.

I'm not the only one who's had these thoughts:

There's even a Museum of Obsolete Media. Of course, it's a virtual museum, stored on digital media, so eventually it may experience the ultimate irony when it becomes obsolete.

I'm old enough and came into computing early enough that I've personally used punched cards, paper tape, paper print-outs, magnetic tape, 8-inch floppy disks, 5.25-inch floppies, 3.5-inch floppies, Zip disks, CD, DVD, external magnetic hard drives, solid-state drives, and a variety of USB flash drives to store my data. ALL OF THEM DEGRADE OVER TIME. EVERY SINGLE ONE. The books and the paper documents that we have have turned out to be far more durable than any of the digital media that we've yet devised, and even those pages will rot over time.

Nothing endures. Depending on what happens in our society, in a couple of thousand years, all that may be left are the stone engravings of previous eras... but the kicker here is that our own archaeologists have dug them up, removed them from their historical strata, and entrusted their provenance to the same impermanent media that will render our deeds invisible to future generations. Should we lose our own history then we will have killed the memory of everyone before us.

I'm currently in the laborious process of recovering data from a 2 terabyte drive that recently bit the dust. I'll be doing that for a long time. That is, of course, the impetus for this little missive. But the reason for it is, in the spirit of advocacy, spell out a few important lessons I've learned in the 35 years (or so) that I've been computing. So, in the order that I thought of them...
  1. Back up your backups. When you first get an inkling that a medium is headed for obsolescence, get everything that needs to be saved off of it. I thought that this large-capacity drive would be more reliable than it is. In the future I'll budget for two, of compatible size though different manufacture.
  2. You don't really need to back up everything. Sometimes, programs are truly obsolete. They've been replaced by something far better and you don't really need it anymore. Sure, it may have done the job then, but you haven't used it for years and have no data that requires it. Learn to let go.
  3. Use open formats. In other words, make sure that your data don't require particular programs to run. As an example, ODF documents can be read by any number of programs... StarOffice,, LibreOffice, Symphony, etc., and may even be opened and largely understood by unzipping them and reading the XML files. Old WordStar documents are mostly marked-up text, and I've found that they're actually pretty readable on their own. But proprietary formats suck. When the program is gone or can't run on your platform, the data are useless. Free (libre) software require no software keys or activation codes, and your access to those programs will never be cut off. For my personal computing I switched to free software in the late '90s and haven't missed the proprietary stuff at all.
  4. Emulators rock. When you're stuck with data that can be read by only one program, and the program can only run under a legacy system, then emulation may get you there IF you can get the data off of the medium.
  5. Legacy media readers rock. I still have an Iomega Zip drive. AND a 3.5" floppy drive. AND an external CD/DVD reader. I also have a nice, cheap external hard drive dock for SATA and IDE drives. And they ALL are accessible through USB or through a RS-232 to USB converter. While it's a good idea to get the data off of those formats as soon as you can, you have to remember that it's not only your media, but your computer itself that can become obsolete, and it may die unexpectedly. It's a good idea to have an external reader for every ancient format your prior machine could read, just in case.
  6. Disk images rock. Often, a program expects data to be on not just a disk, but a particular type of disk. While the programmers who made those assumptions should have been drowned as children, you're left to deal with that problem. I deal with it by making ISO disk images of the media, which I then mount as a virtual drive. This can be done in a number of ways. In Linux I use a program like AcetoneISO to mount the drive directly to my file system. In Windows I use PortableWinCDEmu for the same purpose. But push comes to shove I can mount the image as a drive in an emulator or in VirtualBox to be read by the (emulated) hardware or OS that supports it. Disk images cannot be scratched or misplaced. They can, however, be lost if the media on which they exist dies, so point 1 above is hugely important. I can't stress it enough.
Up to now I've been a data hoarder. I don't really "do" traditional photos and I've even digitized a great number of my books (and no, you can't have copies unless they're in the public domain, in which case you can probably find them no Project Gutenberg). The record of my life is basically on digital media. But experiences like this have me wondering whether I should just embrace the ephemeral nature of Life and live in the moment. A thousand years from now it may all be gone anyway.

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